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How climate change affects mental health, and what we can do about it

Mental health climate change; The climate crisis is the greatest global challenge facing humanity. Although there are many aspects

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
ExxonMobil knew about global warming, but withheld information

High temperatures also affect mental health. This has been confirmed by multiple studies, in which there is talk of repercussions for people who suffer from anxiety or depression

It should be remembered that the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that last July 2023 was considered the hottest month in history. In addition, at the beginning of that same month, what scientists had been announcing since the beginning of the year was confirmed: the arrival of the El Niño phenomenon, with high temperatures in different regions of the world.

Relationship between mental health and climate change

Now, regarding the relationship between mental health and climate change, Dr. Joshua Wortzel, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on climate change and mental health, told The New York Times that just five years ago began to take their relationship seriously

A number of academic articles have already spoken on the subject. For example, research published in the academic journal PNAS shows that exposure to extreme weather conditions, over the short and long term, is associated with worsening mental health.

The research was based on weather and climate data, along with reported mental health problems, drawn from nearly 2 million randomly sampled US residents between 2002 and 2012. More specifically, the study reveals that going from monthly temperatures of between 25 °C and 30 °C to more than 30 °C increases the probability of mental health problems by 0.5%.

Along the same lines is an investigation by the magazine Jama, also carried out in the United States, which speaks of an increase in visits to the emergency department for problems related to mental health, such as substance use disorders, mood disorders, anxiety, stress, and schizophrenia.

0.7% more suicides due to heat

Another article published in the journal Nature also speaks of a 0.7% increase in suicides related to high temperatures, specifically in the United States and Mexico, and forecasts a deterioration for 2050 if climatic conditions continue in the same way.

Scientists have estimated that there is an almost 5% increased risk of death among patients with psychosis, dementia, or substance use. In addition, the researchers reported a 0.7 per cent increase in suicides related to rising temperatures, and a 4 to 6 per cent increase in interpersonal violence, including homicides.

Climate change could also cause disrupted sleep and increased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter directly linked to mood, to play a role in a number of factors.

Dr. Asim Shah, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told The New York Times that increased sunlight and heat can raise serotonin levels and lead to mood swings, aggression and irritability. A variety of widely used drugs, including antibiotics, beta blockers, some antidepressants, and antihistamines, also affect the body's ability to sense and regulate body temperature. For this reason, Sha emphasizes the importance of health professionals evaluating the possible risks for patients who take this type of medication.

Other factors, such as economic and social ones, could affect people's mental health given the new climatic conditions. 

He had already been alerted last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that rising temperatures, displacement, famine, and economic and social losses would cause deep anxiety, pain, and stress.

Scientists have even used the term "climate distress" to refer to the multitude of feelings caused by the environmental changes that appear around us. Those who already have mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, may have a harder time coping.

Climate change increases deaths

Last year, The World Health organisation WHO estimates that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year, worldwide, between 2030 and 2050, as a consequence of changes in the characteristics of diseases, many of which are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall. In terms of health, the effects of climate change are felt in different areas and are known and combated, above all, in the most economically developed countries.

The WHO describes several cases of mental health effects. One of them, for example, is increased stress and suffering. This, in turn, according to the medical institution, can lead to reduced reactions of the immune system, and increased vulnerability to air pollution and water-borne diseases. The agency also notes that it has noticed that the rise in temperature has been linked to rising suicides in many countries.

Other climate risks can also lead to strained interpersonal relationships and intimate partner violence, the report said, noting that environmental emergencies could lead to family breakups and disconnection from social support systems.

"The effects of climate change are increasingly present in our daily lives, and there is little specialized mental health support for people and communities facing climate hazards," said Maria Neira Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO: Vulnerable groups at risk

The WHO warns that certain populations will be disproportionately at risk from climate change due to existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. For example, he says, “Indigenous peoples are more likely to determine well-being in terms of harmony with the natural environment, which is significantly affected by climate change. As a result, they may suffer more from the loss of even a small amount of land or wildlife or from other climate-related impacts."

Therefore, climate change can directly affect mental health due to exposure to psychological trauma and stressful life situations, such as those experienced in climatic natural disasters, which are increasingly frequent, with injuries, traumas, loss of life of people, goods and involuntary movements.

They impact how people view health and safety, posing risks for anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression, and suicide. These occurrences increase in frequency, causing injuries, trauma, loss of life, property damage, and displacements. They also impact how people perceive health and safety, acting as a risk factor for anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression, and suicide.

Mental health risks linked indirectly

Among the rest of the risk factors for mental health investigated, the following scale of incidence would be an indirect affectation. For example, due to increased air pollution or an event that does not generate an emergency situation such as those mentioned above.

The agency said that government leaders, climate change mitigation and adaptation actors, and mental health professionals should come together to promote community climate action that strengthens resilience and addresses root causes. The agency also warned that despite climate change, the availability of mental health services is limited today due to funding gaps and a lack of trained staff in countries.

It seems clear that climate change affects our mental health, but the mechanisms by which it occurs are still unclear. That is why it is necessary to carry out more studies that delve into the long-term effect that climate change can have on mental health. 

How do we lessen climate change risks to mental health?

Supporting vulnerable individuals requires understanding those most susceptible to climate-induced mental health effects, especially those with existing mental health issues. Integrating mental health services into emergency climate response is crucial. This approach should extend beyond immediate emotional responses to include sustained assistance for long-term effects like PTSD.

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