Climate Change Impacts On Mental Health Key Focus of Workshop

The effects of climate change events such as rising temperatures, fires and floods on populations is a big part of the climate change discussion.

Now some are advocating for the mental health effects of climate change to be added.

That issue was a topic at a recent California Department of Mental Health and California Air Resources Board workshop in Sacramento.

“Most of the focus right now is on preparing for climate change with technical adaptations, or the hardening of physical infrastructure and water systems,” said Bob Doppelt, director of The Resource Innovation Group, a climate change education and research organization affiliated with Willamette University.

“All of that is critical, but what has not been focused on is the human reaction,” Doppelt said.

At the workshop, psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren said the mental health effects of climate change needs to be taken seriously.

The number of days that California is projected to exceed an extreme heat threshold each year between 1950-2099. Source: Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

A growing body of evidence has shown that stress from climate change effects has been correlated with the appearance of mental disorders. One study of residents who lived through Hurricane Andrew showed that between 20 and 30 percent of adults met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at six months and two years after the hurricane.

Van Susteren, who is an advisory board member with the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, cited brain tissue inflammation as an example of how climate change can spur mental health effects. Studies have shown that air pollution can cause such inflammation.

“That inflammation can lead to neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS,” she said.

On days with poor air quality, emergency rooms report a higher number of people with extreme anxiety and for threats to commit suicide, Van Susteren said.

She believes there is clear link between extreme climate and events and an increase in aggressive behavior.

“For each standard deviation of temperature and rainfall you can expect a 4 percent increase in conflict between individuals, and a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups,” Van Susteren said.

The stresses of climate change are more likely to be felt in economically disadvantaged communities. One recent Harvard study found that heat-associated mortality between 1997 and 2006 in the United States was associated with poverty and poor housing quality.

Individuals who live in poverty have a difficult time coping with floods, fires and hurricanes since they have fewer financial resources and cannot readily relocate or evacuate, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

“You can’t just talk about mental health of the individual without understanding other issues that emerge, such as the indirect and direct traumas produced by toxic stressors produced by climate change,” Doppelt said.

The discussion at the workshop suggested that the mental health impacts of climate change will be an emerging field of study.

“If we don’t get out ahead of this issue then the harmful human reactions to climate change-induced toxic stresses are likely to be as bad, or worse than the physical impacts,” said Doppelt.

The issue needs to be embedded into the larger climate change discussion so that proactive actions can be taken so that communities can cope with the effects, he said.

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The California Energy Commission is the state's primary energy policy and planning agency created by the Legislature in 1974.
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