A report focusing on tackling the mental health challenges associated with the worsening climate advocates for better policy for emotional wellbeing
Highlighting how climate change is negatively affecting people’s emotional wellbeing around the world, the report suggests healthcare leaders and policy makers to take a holistic approach to respond to these mental health impacts.
Eco-anxiety, defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” has become a globally used term to describe the dread-induced feeling people can experience because of the worsening climate, and negative news surrounding climate change.
Dr Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Innovations Fellow at the Institute of Global Health Innovation led a briefing at the Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre and Grantham Institute COP26 online seminar, joined by Dr Benjamin Barratt, Reader in Environmental Exposures & Public Health and Deputy Director of the Environmental Research Group at Imperial.
Noting that the 2019 climate conference COP25 did not include any official events related to mental health and climate change, COP26 in 2021 chose health as a priority area for science, however, still did not address mental health in association with physical health.
She emphasised how the mental health impacts of the climate crisis currently have large hidden impacts, which are bound to escalate without any policy or action in place to assist people’s emotional wellbeing.
“A clear relationship between increased temperatures and higher suicide rates globally”
The report led, titled: ‘The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice’ provides substantial evidence that climate change has an extremely detrimental impact on mental health.
Affecting not only individuals, but health systems and economies that are currently unaccounted for in policy and practice too, some of the impacts of climate change include:
- Rising temperatures are associated with increased suicides and suicidal thoughts, at around 1% for every 1°C temperature rise in a hotter day relative to a local threshold. Without climate action, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be an estimated 22,000 extra suicides in the USA and Mexico due to higher temperatures
- Across 25 countries negative emotions about climate change are related to insomnia and poorer mental health
- High levels of eco-anxiety were found in young people. In a survey of 10,000 young people aged 16-25, 56% thought humanity was doomed and two thirds said they were sad and scared
- There is evidence of severe distress following extreme weather events
- People who meet criteria for mental illness are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change physically and mentally
- The climate crisis threatens to the disrupt the provision of care for people with mental illness diagnosis
Dr Lawrance said: “Climate change and biodiversity loss are linked to poor mental and physical health. Wildfires, floods and heatwaves have resulted in people losing homes, higher hospital attendance and new cases of mental illness.
“To turn this around we need to start looking at this issue holistically and stop treating these issues in silos. We need to showcase more the benefits of creating a safe climate on mental health. I would like this see more of this in policy and health planning.”
Climate change exacerbates mental distress, even for those not directly affected
However, Dr Lawrance advises there are solutions to this growing problem, which could potentially co-benefit both improving mental health and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, all while adapting to a warmer climate.
The recommendations for health system leaders and healthcare practitioners are to include training for healthcare workers to identify and manage the impact of climate change on mental health, with the inclusion of people vulnerable to and with lived experience of climate change impacts in research and the development of interventions, and the incorporation of mental health support such as screening as a key pillar of climate disaster emergency responses.
Further than this she recommends establishing an international network including key stakeholders including governments, healthcare systems, community groups, academics and emergency responders to accumulate and share knowledge to acquire successful strategies to this issue.
Advocating to conduct interdisciplinary research to fully understand the nature of climate change on mental health, she advises to ensure the inclusion of mental health discussion when undertaking climate change policies, prioritising climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies with eco-benefits for mental health.
Finally, she highlights the impact of the reduction of social inequalities. This could include improving air quality, providing equitable access to nature and improving the energy efficiency on housing, which all have evidential impacts on mental health.
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