Climate Change & Mental Health Part 1
Updated: Sep 1
13 November 2020
As our world faces potentially destructive climate change, what will the impact be on our individual and collective mental health? On 15th November 2020, a virtual press conference on mental health was conducted by The Generation Mental Health, who mobilizes the growing movement of people passionate about making a difference in the mental health of their communities and the world.
One of the core programs explores the historical to emerging climate change and mental health research and trends. The speakers discuss the pathways through which climate change affects mental health and what policies and services are needed to address this urgent issue.
Dr Fiona Charles ,Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland
Dr Katie Hayes, Policy Analyst at Health Canada's Climate Change and Innovation Bureau
Caroline Anitha Devadason, Public Health professional at the World Bank Group
Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, Chair of Klima Action Malaysia- KAMY
Moderator: Suhailah Ali, PhD Student at the Queensland Center for Mental Health Research
Key themes of discussion Part 1
With the escalating climate crisis, there has been growing recognition of the impacts on mental health and the development of new terms to describe these such as ‘eco-anxiety’. Can you explain some of these climate-change-related mental health outcomes and how you differentiate between pathological and non-pathological responses?
Dr Katie Hayes has done some research on eco-anxiety. She explained that the impact pathways are complex, categorized to the climate hazard like wildfire, droughts, floods, or hurricanes and what can happen after. Increased anxiety, mood disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder are the most often responses that can be diagnosed. Meanwhile, eco-anxiety and eco-grief can often be described as 'intense worry, fear, concerned over the ecological threats due to climate change, related to our awareness level. The behavioural responses to climate awareness such as helplessness are increasing but not much understood in terms of diagnosing, treatment and support. We have anticipated and already seeing differential impacts in mental health and emotional wellbeing across the different socio-economic background, cultures, and vulnerable populations in the world
In terms of research, what are the latest evidence in the climate change and mental health field and what are the research gaps?
Dr Katie Hayes explained that much of the research was born out of the disaster mental health research, focused on experiences in post-flooding, post-hurricane, from which increasing cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety attributed to increased heatwaves leading to aggression, violence and suicidal ideation. While that has been known, an emerging area lies in eco-anxiety and assessing the risk population; who is most at risk at experiencing emotional consequence especially those already facing health inequities such as children and youth, as well as those who are working in the field -- environmental defenders who are very attuned to the climate risks.
"There is no intervention nor health economics focused research to measure the cost of mental health impacts to climate change", said Dr Fiona.
What glaring is that there is no research on how to influence policy or how policy should look like in strengthening the communities mental capacity in coping with climate impacts as a not-so-distant reality.
From a public health consultancy perspective, Caroline Anitha Devadason stresses that there is a gap when it comes to mental health data, from the lower and middle-income countries and the long term implication of climate change to mental health. The lack of these data, in the form of costed intervention, impedes the formation of climate change and health plans. Such data can give the impetus to form climate policies and political support for this field. Another challenge in acquiring this data is to attribute these mental outcomes to climate change.
Dr Susan Clayton is one of the leading researchers on eco-anxiety, you can read her papers below or listen her explaining eco-anxiety to a less technical audience
Research has been translated into practical application in communities that have already felt the impacts of climate change. How grassroots are filling in the gap when the government or state has no plans on addressing climate change at all?
Dr Katie explained that putting research into action is still on the grassroots level. For example in post-Katrina, many communities have been challenging the stigma of mental illness and providing community-based mental health care. There is an ongoing project in the Ninth's ward, an area hit hardest in New Orleans that provides psychological first aid and community capacity building in how to identify and address the psychosocial responses. Similarly, in her work in long term flooding in a rural community in Canada, she observed community has run projects to train local businesses in psychosocial first aid and to create a safe space for conversation in that community.
She also highlighted that many of these community-based interventions in psychosocial responses post disaster are run by youth.
The discourse on mental health effect in climate has begun to climb up in policy level, where having a chapter on mental health and climate change in Canada's assessment report.
The Australian experience, according to Dr Fiona, is similar but the response is slower. In the southern Darling Downs, 3 hours drive from Brisbane, which has been in drought in 3 years and was hit by the first bush fire season in December 2019 -- known as the Black Christmas, the worst bushfire Australia has ever seen. Agricultural land was affected, and grain crops were tainted, so farmers weren't able to sell them. On top of that, the bushfires create local climatic events such as hail storms which further devastate the farmers. These climatic events -- attributed by climate change has lessened the mental resilience of these communities.
In recent years, according to Nadiah, there’s been a great deal of momentum in youth-led climate action movements leading to unique mental health considerations for climate change activists
Read part 2 of the summary here
KAMY shared the trends we saw in southeast Asia and Malaysia in particular, from the historical context of environmental progress to the work we do in the grassroots level and what this might mean to climate policy and the activism we see here in Malaysia.
This infographic is a summary of what is discussed above. You can also see it on our Instagram.
Below are some of the recommended reading prepared by the speakers prior to the conference :
Climate Change and Mental Health
Clayton, Susan, Manning, C., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, (March). Retrieved from http://www.cridlac.org/digitalizacion/pdf/eng/doc19764/doc19764.htm
Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
Dodgen, D., D., Donato, N., Kelly, A., La Greca, J., Morganstein, J., Reser, J., … Ursano, R. (2016). Ch. 8: Mental Health and Well-Being. The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.
Hayes, K., Berry, P., & Ebi, K. (2019). Factors Influencing the Mental Health Consequences of Climate Change in Canada. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 16(9), 1583. https://doi.org///doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16091583
Hayes, K., Poland, B., Cole, D., & Agic, B. (n.d.). The Psychosocial Sequelae of a Changing Climate: An Exploration of the Lingering Mental Health Consequences of the 2013 High River Flood and Implications for the Field of Climate Change and Health.
Hayes, Katie, Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: Risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 12(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13033-018-0210-6
Berry, H. (2009). Pearl in the oyster: Climate change as a mental health opportunity. Australasian Psychiatry, 17(6), 453-456.
Berry, H. L., Bowen, K., & Kjellstrom, T. (2010). Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. International journal of public health, 55(2), 123-132.
Hayes, K., & Poland, B. (2018). Addressing mental health in a changing climate: Incorporating mental health indicators into climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation assessments.International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(9), 1806.