A Boston Globe article a few days ago discussed the impacts of climate change on mental health. A couple weeks back I posted about President Obama’s inauguration as a moment of hope among what can be days of depressing work in the field of climate change. The Globe article nicely dissects the potential mental impacts of climate change into two categories, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the second one:
1) Disaster-related impacts of people who are immediately and visibly affected by severe weather events that may be related to climate change.
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.
2) More long-term or chronic affects related to the slow erosion that climate change may have on our security and connection to nature.
Last year, an anxious, depressed 17-year-old boy was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. He was refusing to drink water. Worried about drought related to climate change, the young man was convinced that if he drank, millions of people would die. The Australian doctors wrote the case up as the first known instance of “climate change delusion.”
This second type of mental health impact has been coined “solastalgia” and studied extensively by Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher at the University of Newcastle’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences. You can read an interview with Albrecht at Worldchanging.
I already feel I may be suffering solastalgia, with increased anxiety about making the right choices for the environment, feeling guilty for not doing enough, worrying about whether the natural places I love will be there for my children.
But I take hope in the closing comments from Paul Epstein, the associate director for the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School in the Boston Globe article:
“Getting involved can be an antidote to the depression that can come from the overwhelming realizations that we have to face…,” Epstein said. “It can be empowering to realize that what you do is effective.”
Perhaps if the United States and the world’s governments reach a global climate agreement this year, that could be the best thing yet for our collective mental health.
(Image created by Grant Neufeld; used here under a Creative Commons license.)