Climate Change Has an Underbelly Few Are Considering
As we inspect the rivers, the air and the food supply, we may forget one very important disturbing factor of climate change; mental health.
I was fortunate enough to attend a session by Robert Frost many years ago in Lennox, MA, where he read one of his famous poems. Frost might not have realized the prescience of his creation.
No one knew how climate change would have changed his famous poem. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” And how fitting that his name should be Frost.
Climate change, we’re told, is ripping through our environment like some insane force of nature bent on the destruction of so much, perhaps many of us and entire nations. Our rivers are swelling or drying up, our glaciers are melting at frighteningly fast rates, and the sun is mercilessly beating down in temperature never seen before.
Weather has become unpredictable, and with it, our land and minds become stressed to the point of wanting to give up. The operational words here, of course, are “give up.”
Storms are more violent, drought becomes common, and the residual effects spring out from there; there is no one, and no place left unaffected. Perceiving the rising seas as only of concern to those in vulnerable areas is putting our heads in the sand. As the seas rise, they destroy the land, housing, livestock, and economic diversity. Where do these people go, how do they support themselves, and how are we a “part of the main?”
Increases in global temperatures are not limited to air conditioning or existing current building stock in their damage. Human activity is affected by increases in temperature and humidity. Who will be the most affected, physically and mentally, by climate change?
The American Psychiatric Association has indicated, “People with mental health conditions are more likely to be affected by extreme weather events for several reasons. Psychiatric medications can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate heat and their awareness that their body temperature is rising, which is associated with injury and death. People living with mental illness are also more likely to live in poverty or to have co-occurring substance use disorders, which make it harder for them to cope or adapt to changes. In addition, those with severe mental illness are more likely to be dependent upon service, infrastructure, and medication supply chains that are often disrupted after disasters.”
I have had personal experience with high temperature and psychiatric patients on medications. There can be an inability to recognize when the body is becoming overheated and pay little attention to it.
One patient at a hospital where I worked played basketball in a hospital gym where the temperature was 95F degrees. He collapsed and died. Other patients walked out into the cold winter with no coats on or not closed; they didn’t feel their body temperature changes, either. But it wasn’t only those in a psychiatric hospital.
A young man from a mental health center walked into the snowy woods and died there from the frigid cold. Medications, as mentioned, can change our mental and physical thermostats, leaving us to the whim of the weather and placing our lives on the line.
The American Psychological Association has provided downloadable guidance related to the inherent dangers of climate change. “An extreme weather event can be a source of trauma, and the experience can cause disabling emotions. More subtle and indirect effects of climate change can add stress to people’s lives in varying degrees. Whether experienced indirectly or directly, stressors to our climate translate into impaired mental health that can result in depression and anxiety.”
Prior research related to temperature and behavioral change can be useful as we face the implications of permanent temperature/weather changes. Irritability is more apparent during hot weather, as is the inability to handle stress, increased aggression, and even murder rates may see a spike. The film director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for saying that hot weather was the perfect time for murder.
The reactions of police are also affected by temperature, according to research. Police officers in training were more likely to view a situation as one of aggression if the temperature in the room was elevated. The temperature and drawing a gun from a holster saw a significant relationship, with 85% drawing at higher temps and 59% drawing at lower room temperatures.
While we know a great deal about how climate change will affect employment, food insecurity, real estate availability and valuation, and physical diseases related to respiratory disorders and others, we need work on mental health changes. From personal experience, most of us will already have had experience with emotional changes related to environmental temperatures. But we can’t air condition the entire world, can we? And global warming is marching at a steady rate unabated by good intentions and lost opportunities for change.
The specter of eco-anxiety is being suggested, but how much is it changing our behavior, or isn’t it? Temperature change concerns are important, but the pandemic has compounded anxiety levels, which added isolation, health dangers, job disruption, economic insecurity, and school interruptions.
The normal patterns of life, which provide a sense of stability and comfort, were disrupted. How do we carry on when tomorrow is somewhat unknown? We’ve seen the information about the great national resignation, but what does it mean for the future? How did climate change enter into this massive job walk-off? Did it?
Two of the most frequently seen mental health consequences of climate change are temperatures and area resources/jobs. Once an area is deficient in the means to support a viable population, ecomigration occurs, which brings opposing forces, with potentially differing views of life, into proximity and can result in fighting for territory as well as contributing to political disputes.
Examples of this have been shown worldwide in conflicts that can last for generations. The resulting protests, rebellions, and or riots are life-threatening, adding to the stress. But we must also give appropriate consideration to how these mental stresses relate directly to our physical well-being. Stress doesn’t work in isolation; it brings our entire body down as it rises up.
The stresses which result from climate change are many and contribute meaningfully to higher rates of disorders related to the immune system. It is this system of health regulation that is most sensitive to stress.
By 2030, WHO projections regarding climate change put the future in dire perspective. “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress alone. The direct damage costs to health is estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion per year...”
The statistics deal with physical illness, but over and above that, the underbelly of the “hidden” aspects of mental illness will take a greater toll. We need to consider increases in suicide and how this climate-related stress will affect the young, in particular. A health briefing paper (downloadable) outlines the areas where mental health issues will have the greatest impact.
Uncertainty alone will cause excessive stress and promote the growth of mental health problems. Where will the resources be, and how will they be managed? Corporate and government assistance in healthcare payments may not meet the need. Planning now for effectively combating climate change means setting out a realistic, economically sound design for the future.
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