Science & Health

In America, 200 Million People Will Suffer 'Psychological Distress' From Climate Change

200 Million Americans Will Suffer 'Psychological Distress' From Climate Change

A report published by the National Wildlife Foundation finds that the majority of Americans can expect to suffer mental health problems as a result of global warming and warns that our mental health system is not equipped to handle it.

“The interplay between the climate realities we likely face and the potential psychological fallout from them was the subject of a conference convened in Washington D.C., in March 2009,” write Lise van Susteren, MD, and Kevin J. Doyle, JD, introducing their work. “A highly respected group of experts offered insights. Their thoughts, recommendations and supporting evidence are presented in this report.”

The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States,” examines the hitherto undiscussed effects of increasingly prevalent extreme weather, sea level rise, drought and other impacts of climate change on mental health. How will we cope with a changing world?

“The incidences of mental and social disorders will rise steeply. These will include depressive and anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, suicides, and widespread outbreaks of violence. Children, the poor, the elderly, and those with existing mental health disorders are especially vulnerable and will be hardest hit.”

The report’s findings are the subject of the first episode of Bill Nye’s new show, “Global Meltdown.”

He compares our gradual acceptance of the realities of global warming to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Denial and anger we see every day, in our politics. Bargaining we see with carbon emissions trading. Depression has become a well known problem for climate scientists. Acceptance? That’s where we need to be so that we can do something about climate change, even if much of its future impact is already guaranteed.

The report makes five major findings:

1. 200 million Americans will suffer “serious psychological distress” as a direct result of climate change events.

“Natural disasters and extreme weather events will strike many places that are densely populated: 50 per cent of Americans live in coastal regions exposed to storms and sea level rise, 70 per cent of Americans live in cities prone to heat waves; major inland cities lie along rivers that will swell to record heights, and the fastest growing part of the nation is the increasingly arid West”

2. It’s not there yet, but climate change will become a “top-of-mind” concern soon.

“People may, indeed, suffer from anxiety about climate change but not know it. They will have a vague unease about what is happening around them, the changes they see in nature, the weather events and the fact that records are being broken month after month. But they won’t be sufficiently aware of the source. This anxiety will increase as reports of the gravity of our condition become more clear and stark.”

3. Already Psychologically Vulnerable People Are At The Most Risk

“In the first known ‘climate change delusion’ a depressed 17 year old boy was hospitalized for refusing to drink water out of fear it would cause many more deaths in drought ridden Australia.”

4. Our Mental Healthcare System Is Not Prepared For So Many New Patients

“Given the foreseeable magnitude of the impacts and the rate at which the world is changing, a campaign focused on what this segment of the U.S. mental health service community can do to help is certainly needed. Examples of needs include how to address large populations (sometimes millions) who have witnessed or been displaced by violent weather, are suffering through heat waves or drought and other conditions that create the need for large scale emergency mental health interventions in affected locations.”

5. First Responders Aren’t Ready

Due to the number of emergency situations in which global climate change and mental health issues will be connected, first responders will need additional education and training to handle the immediate psychological trauma and symptoms of climate disaster victims. Such training will support rescue operations, triage decisions, application of medications, patient safety and more.

What mental disorders can arise from climate change and related events?

Violence: “Research from Iowa State shows that, as the temperature rises, so does the incidence of violence.” This could be exacerbated as communities and cultures are split up, relocated and potentially find themselves in conflict with their hosts. Witness the violence in Houston in the years following Hurricane Katrina; displaced families from NOLA were sent to Texas.

Displacement Stress: The report emphasises the effects immediate and sometimes long-term displacement can have on people following flooding.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Major disasters and witnessing the death of loved ones as a result can lead to PTSD.

Despair: “The unrelenting day by day despair of watching and waiting for water that doesn’t come will have a singularly damaging impact on the psyche of the people who have depended on Mother Nature’s rainfall for their livelihood.”

Anxiety: “Persistent psychological stress is common, with anxiety reactions recurring from unavoidable re-exposure to the odours, smoke and ash [of wildfires].”

Fear: “Higher temperatures favour the formation of ozone which triggers asthma attacks. Anyone who has asthma and parents of children with asthma are familiar with the fears this illness engenders. People die from untreated asthma. Many other fears linked to disease are harder to nail down. As malaria and dengue fever and other infectious diseases march northward due to warmer temperatures, inchoate fears of threat and vulnerability drift into people’s consciousness. This will be compounded by a growing number of sensational media reports tied to disease outbreaks and public health warnings.”

Anger: “With increasing media coverage educating people about the causes of climate change and the ensuing extreme weather events and other disasters, we can expect more powerful and troubling responses to human-caused climate disasters than when disasters were previously experienced as natural or acts of God.”

In response, the report suggests that governments invest heavily in mental health preparedness, training first responders, increasing awareness of climate change’s psychological impacts and altering practices to suit.

One of the biggest issues it raises is the psychological impact on members of the military and their families expected to result from climate change.

“As the US military looks ahead to the likely causes of war in the next 30 years, global warming is front and center,” the report begins. It identifies, “”massive human evacuations and migrations, increased border tensions, greater demands for rescue and evacuation efforts, and conflicts over essential resources, including food and water,” as both motivation for military actions and the kind of situations troops could soon be tasked with resolving. We’re already seeing mass migration partially motivated by climate change as hundreds of thousands of migrants pour into Europe; right now.

“The US military must learn how to prepare itself for and respond to the human suffering that will be on a scale not seen before,” the report continues. It warns that suicide rates for military members could rise dramatically as a result.

That’s some serious doom and gloom, huh? While the report does not end on a positive not, it does at least conclude that we can abate these impacts to the greatest possible degree by acting sooner rather than later:

“The economic costs of ignoring the real impact that climate-related disasters will have on our national psyche and the American spirit are potentially immense. The human suffering associated with these disasters will be widespread and run very deep. The national security implications are likewise as yet inconceivable.”

The report concludes: “Mental health professionals will need a new focus and new energy to help those who will be hurt most grievously by global warming.”


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