Climate change and mental health, a new and growing challenge

In the past decades, science has developed a better understanding of the causes for mental disorders. In general, mental health problems are related to complex interactions between societal (e.g. automation, internet, economic crises, addiction, social wellbeing), genetic and biochemical factors. One factor has however not received a lot of attention yet: climate change and mental health. The rapid climate change we are experiencing is one of the most urgent public health threats in the 21st century and is having a profound impact on mental health. All countries are affected, although not all in the same way. Climate change has an even bigger impact on countries with poor infrastructure and limited means.

The effects on mental health are multiple. Many studies have found that wellbeing of humans is altered by temperature, for instance: extreme heat can impair the quality of sleep and can make physical activity difficult. However, when the temperature is more extreme, vulnerable groups (e.g. groups with mental health problems or with substance abuse problems, elderly, the poor) have a higher chance of worsened mood or behavioural disorders, violence, aggression or suicide. The latter also effects farmers, especially those in India. Besides extreme temperatures, other climate related changes can also increase mental health issues. These changes include extreme weather conditions such as flood, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, mudslides, cold snaps and wildfires. The growing impact of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and higher levels of UV B and C should not be underestimated either. In addition, climate change is causing an increase of vector-borne diseases and rising sea-levels.

These changes have already led to billions of euros in economic damage (infrastructure loss, crop failure) and an increase of population displacement, with for example hundreds of thousands of people moving out of coastal areas in for example Alaska, Philippines, Bangladesh and the eastern part of the USA. In some cases, climate change has already led to social instability as food prices rise, economic growth dampens and more people move into the cities. Population growth is further compounding the effects of climate change. These conditions are not only causing an increase in physical trauma but are also leading to more mental problems such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Even though climate change is one of the many factors that have an impact on mental health, current approaches to decrease the mental health burden should also focus on the impact of climate change. A group of psychiatrists in the US has therefore started the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA) in order to inform mental health professionals about this issue and sets out actions to be taken. The CPA lays out ways of seeking help for climate related mental health issues by bringing together psychiatrist on a national and international level, providing resources and influencing mental health policy.

Most research on climate change and mental health is conducted in the USA, Australia and India. Europe is lagging behind in this field of research, even though the impact of climate change is growing in this part of the world. The eMEN project is therefore urging the scientific community and policy makers in Europe to invest more in research and tools (e.g. e-mental health) which can reduce the growing impact of climate change on mental health and strengthen the resilience of societies! 

Video about climate change and mental health; Harvard School of Public Health

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