Is Climate Change Making Us Mental?

droughtIf you were to click on my bio here for Sustainablog, you’d see that I started down this green path because my son who was six at the time had read about global warming and gave us the “what for” over the SUV we owned. We joke now with him that he was the one that got this whole thing started for our family, yet at times he seems, at almost ten years old, the least interested in the environment. In a way, that may be a good thing.

The Boston Globe reported that Climate change takes a mental toll, and that children and adults alike are starting to have “psychosis or anxiety disorders focused on climate change.” Children especially “are having nightmares about global-warming-related natural disasters.”

Emotional distress and mental problems related to current events and natural disasters is not something new. The article points out that in the past threats such as nuclear war or AIDS have affected the mental health of past generations.

There are concerns that climate change could have an even greater effect if some of the predictions about climate change begin to manifest themselves. Much of what is predicted about climate change will show itself in extreme weather conditions.

There is evidence that extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, cyclones, and hurricanes, can lead to emotional distress, which can trigger such things as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, in which the body’s fear and arousal system kicks into overdrive.

After Hurricane Katrina, rates of severe mental illness – including depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and a variety of phobias – doubled, from 6.1 percent to 11.3 percent, among those who lived in affected regions, a 2006 study by the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group said.

Rates of mild-to-moderate mental illness also doubled, from 9.7 percent to 19.9 percent.

“After a disaster, people can feel inadequate, like outside forces are taking control of their lives,” said Joshua Miller, a professor at the Smith College School for Social Work who responds to disasters worldwide. “They can’t see a positive future. They tend to lose hope or become depressed.”

The article goes on to talk about how people’s environments change, they may become a source of “chronic stress.”

What can be done?

Miller says that “we need to train people to administer psychological first aid” including

making sure people feel safe after a natural disaster, and educating them about the kinds of psychological responses they might experience.

In the long term, we may also derive some psychological benefit from banding together with other citizens to mitigate the effects of global warming. Taking action might not only give us back a sense of our own sense of efficacy against a powerful outside force, but also help us build community and social ties that offset stress… Getting involved can be an antidote to the depression that can come from the overwhelming realizations that we have to face… It can be empowering to realize that what you do is effective.

Image credit: suburbanbloke under a Creative Commons license

Written by robinshreeves

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