In 2009, The Lancet Commission on Climate Change defined climate change as one of the greatest threats to global health in the 21st century. In 2015 the ‘Lancet Countdown on health and climate change’ was born, a monitoring system dedicated to the effects of climate change on people’s well-being which, despite bringing a significant contribution to the identification of many health indicators, doesn’t mention mental health at all. Literature can already count on several studies proving the negative correlation between climate change and mental health, nevertheless little has been done to understand which interventions, also at the policy level, would be most effective in safeguarding mental health.
Climate change can impact mental health in many ways: from direct exposure to traumatic events (such as hurricanes, landslides, droughts) to the indirect correlation with social, economic, political factors that determine a person’s well-being, influenced by the growing environmental crisis that is being observed globally. Consequences include anxiety and mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep deprivation, suicide and suicidal thoughts, as well as loss of identity due to loss of possessions and mourning for the death of loved ones.
These are effects on the psychological health of the individual and the community, both in the short and long term. This negative trend has been proven in both industrialised countries, such as Australia, and developing countries, such as India. A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggested that heat waves are related to higher rates of hospitalisation for mental disorders. Similarly, changes in the annual rainfall rate have been shown to affect the frequency of events such as floods or droughts, which in turn affects the suicide rate, especially among farmers who find themselves losing everything and are forced to migrate in search of a new employment. This is just one of many examples of the psychological impact of climate change that has been studied over the years.
The risk factors are multiple: the scale of the traumatic event, female gender, younger age, low socio-economic status and level of education, belonging to a minority, family instability, lack of social support. The more economically and socially vulnerable one is, the greater the risk of environmental disasters impacting on the individual. Nature, which has been mythologised in literature for millennia, is considered a refuge for body and soul, to find peace and shelter from the urban world. Seeing our unity with the natural world damaged also shakes our identity.
The role of mental health needs to be recognised as fundamental of a person’s well-being. The psychological impacts of climate change, globally recognised by science, must also be taken into account by political authorities. The priority now is to understand how to intervene to protect health in all its forms, considering mental health as important as physical health.
by Federica Ceraso, Italian Climate Network volunteer