NEWS

The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health Goes Beyond Anxiety

Drawing of person looking stressed among natural disaster

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • A recent survey found that 75% of teens and young adults feel frightened about the future due to climate change.
  • Anxiety is just one mental health impact of climate change, which has also been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and serious mood disorders.
  • Experts say that cultivating resilience at both the individual and the community level will be key to mitigating the mental health impact of climate change. 

Ask a young person what they’re most concerned about for the future, and there’s a good chance they’ll point to climate change. In fact, 75% of people say “the future is frightening,” according to a recent survey that asked 10,000 individuals aged 16 to 25 about their feelings on climate change.

Eco-anxiety—a term that describes “a chronic fear of environmental doom”—is just the beginning of the ways in which the effects of global warming can harm our mental health, though. An alarming new report from the American Psychological Association (APA) has found links between climate change and serious mental health concerns, ranging from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to schizophrenia.

Let’s take a closer look at the ways in which climate change is putting people’s mental health in peril and expert recommendations for addressing those concerns.

Natural Disasters Leave Survivors With PTSD

With climate change already causing an increase in extreme weather events, like severe hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires, researchers have had the opportunity to study the impact of these disasters on survivors. They’ve found that PTSD is one of the most frequently reported mental health outcomes after a natural disaster. Case in point: Nearly half of residents of a Greek island experienced PTSD within a month of exposure to a wildfire, per the APA report.

“Driving away from your home as fast as you safely can with a blazing fire in the rear-view mirror, unsure if your home will survive, is a very traumatic event to survive. And then to find out that your home and all your personal belongings and memories have been destroyed is beyond a devastating loss,” explains Andrea Dindinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in San Francisco.

She explains that climate-fueled events can push the nervous system beyond its ability to regulate. 

Andrea Dindinger, LMFT

Driving away from your home as fast as you safely can with a blazing fire in the rear-view mirror, unsure if your home will survive, is a very traumatic event to survive.

— Andrea Dindinger, LMFT

“For many people, the sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in the on position, keeping your body overstimulated and unable to calm and prepared to fight, flight, or freeze,” she adds.

Worse yet, treatment for PTSD may not be accessible to a survivor of an extreme weather event, who may be left without a home, a job, and the ability to pay for care. So while some people can recover from PTSD in as little as 6 months, individuals affected by natural disasters may experience the condition for years or longer. 

Heat Fuels Mood Disorders

High temperatures from climate change are more than physical discomforts—they’re also psychological stressors. And a growing body of research is finding links between increased heat and troubling mental health outcomes, including schizophrenia and vascular dementia.

“This is of concern given that several studies have indicated that an increase in temperature not only results in a change of mood and anxiety disorders but can result in potential suicide,” says Reggie Ferreira, PhD, associate professor at the Tulane University School of Social Work and program director of the university’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy.

The APA report, for example, cites research that found there’s greater use of emergency mental health services (such as for a suicide attempt) with increases in mean temperature.

For many people, rising temperatures can also make it more difficult to reduce stress levels, further damaging mental health.

“Extreme temperatures require patience and an ability for a person to not just regulate their temperature, but also regulate their mood. When regulating your temperature is not a possibility, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain mindfulness in the moment and can fuel anxiety,” says Dindinger. 

Over the long term, that could lead traditional coping strategies to become less effective, and require individuals to find new ways to manage stress

Climate Change Increases Risk of Depression

As climate change continues to impact our planet, we should expect to see rising levels of depression, according to the APA report. Its review of research shows that depression becomes a greater risk when people have survived a natural disaster, been exposed to urban pollution, or dealt with unwanted changes to their environments.

“It is very common to see an increase in depression in areas that have undergone extreme weather and climate change events. Extreme weather can cause other collateral damage, such as job loss and decreased infrastructure, which also increase rates of depression,” adds Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health

Julian Lagoy, MD

Extreme weather can cause other collateral damage, such as job loss and decreased infrastructure, which also increase rates of depression.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

He continues: “Extreme weather kills many people, and if you have lost a family member or someone very close to you, it will definitely increase your chance for depression.”

What’s more, there’s some evidence that simply reading about climate change could lead to depression. That suggests that everyone (including those who don’t feel they’re directly impacted by global warming) may face mental health risks as climate change endures and continues to be focus in news reports. 

Resilience Is a Key Mental Health Tool

“Raising awareness about mental health and resilience is essential to mitigate the impact of climate change on the mental health of the population. Cultivating resilience and practicing self-care activities and healthy lifestyle habits is the best way to prepare ourselves to face hardships and unfavorable circumstances,” says Rawan Hamadeh, MSc, associate project coordinator at Project HOPE, a global health and humanitarian relief organization that often works in communities impacted by climate crises. 

Her thoughts align with the conclusions of the APA, which says that encouraging resilience is key for reducing the risk of mental health problems from climate change. That could involve deepening social connections, developing a sense of optimism, and adding items of personal significance (like spiritual tools and favorite foods) into disaster preparedness plans, among other strategies.

“Resilience teaches us to persevere despite all the stressors. It teaches us to be in control of the situation rather than only affected by it. It gives us the power to overcome,” adds Dr. Lagoy.

If climate change is affecting your mental health, consider reaching out for help from a professional therapist, if one is available to you. Dr. Ferreira points to the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) as additional sources of support. 

What This Means For You

As climate change becomes a greater presence in our lives, rates of eco-anxiety are continuing to climb. But worries about the future are just the beginning of the ways global warming is impacting our mental health. A new report from the American Psychological Association has found links between climate change and depression, PTSD, and serious mood disorders, among other concerns.

Experts say that building resilience will be an important way for individuals and communities to reduce the risk of mental health problems from climate change. Strategies include finding a sense of optimism, deepening personal relationships, and incorporating meaningful items into emergency preparedness plans. Therapists and distress hotlines can also be sources of additional support for those in crisis. 

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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