Is climate change affecting our mental health?

Rises in temperature, droughts and heatwaves, increase of sea-levels and ice melting: these are just some of the effects that climate change is having and will continue to have on our planet. If the consequences of climate change on Earth are known to most people, some of the effects on our mental health have started to be discussed just recently.

Climate change can directly affect people’s mental health through the increase of extreme weather events: people involved in natural disasters can experience PTSD, depression, anxiety and other issues. This type of direct impacts have been analysed for decades. Differently, the indirect effects of climate change on people have been gaining more and more attention in the last years.

By indirect effects we refer to mental health problems associated with perceptions about climate change, even among people who have not personally experienced any direct impacts. Many terms, such as ecological grief, climate trauma and solastalgia, have been created to depict these issues, but most of these expressions have overlapping meanings and not homogenously defined characteristics. In order to give an overview of these phenomena we will focus on the broader definitions of climate anxiety and ecoanxiety. Ecoanxiety has been described by academics in many ways, but an effective definition was given by the American Psychological Association in 2017: in a report they described ecoanxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Generally speaking, anxiety is depicted by psychologists as something future-oriented and determined by uncertainty. Considering that climate change is characterized by uncertainty, unpredictability and uncontrollability, ecoanxiety seems to be a logical consequence of the ecological issues we are living. The symptoms are various, but they include panic attacks, insomnia and obsessive thinking.

Many concrete testimonies have been reported. Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford, declared that climate scientists and researchers working in Oxford started to ask him for help because they were feeling overwhelmed by their studies on climate change and by their inability to stop its course. The same article has reported the experience of Cover Hogan, a young Australian girl who, after the fires that devastated her country in 2019-2020, started to experience panic induced awakenings at night and sudden cries in the day. A confirmation of this trend comes from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the main professional organisation of psychiatrists in the United Kingdom. They conducted a survey asking, “In the last year have you seen patients who are distressed about environmental and ecological issues?” and nearly half of the respondents (264 of 551) answered affirmatively. Interestingly, the share was even higher (more than 57%, 47 of 82) for child and adolescent psychiatrists, suggesting that young people are more bothered by climate anxiety. Another paper by Sanya Sud and Pritika Das showed through a sample survey conducted in India how climate anxiety seems to affect relevant life choices in Generation Z, including the decision to have children: choosing to bring a new life in a degrading world implies an ethical decision, especially for young people living in areas that are already concretely affected by climate change.

In this alarming scenario exists, though, a silver lining: climate anxiety (or eco-anxiety) seems to be a driver of environmental activism. Alison Roy, a member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists, explained how activism helps young people to counteract their feeling of powerlessness: they don’t have the political power to make the actions needed to stop climate change, but they can still give a constructive help. This is probably one of the reasons why the growth of eco anxiety has been accompanied by the trend of climate strike movements. An example known to most people is the one of Greta Thunberg, the influential activist who founded the Fridays for Future movement at the age of 15, who has openly spoken about her climate change anxiety.

Another point of view is that climate change triggers numerous feelings including, for example, anger and frustration: these are the emotions which motivate people to act. On the contrary, people feeling depressed or anxious about environmental issues are less inclined to take initiative. According to these studies, communication and education campaigns, in order to be successful, should aim to trigger a reaction of anger rather than one of anxiety. Which approach is the most effective is still unclear and, as climate change becomes day by day a more relevant problem, further studies on these issues are essential for the future of our health.

Wanna know more? Take a look at the REFERENCES.

Busby, E., (2019), Climate change activism ‘reducing mental health symptoms among young people’, The Independent, Retrieved from Climate change activism ‘reducing mental health symptoms among young people’ | The Independent | The Independent.

Clayton, S.; Manning, C.M.; Krygsman, K.; Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance; APA & EcoAmerica: Washington, DC, USA.

Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102263. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263.

IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Panu, P. (2020). Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety. Sustainability, 12(19), 7836. doi: 10.3390/su12197836.

Stanley, S., Hogg, T., Leviston, Z., & Walker, I. (2021). From anger to action: Differential impacts of eco-anxiety, eco-depression, and eco-anger on climate action and wellbeing. The Journal Of Climate Change And Health, 1, 100003. doi: 10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100003.

Sud, S., Das, P., (2020). Climate Anxiety and the Consequent Lack of Will to Procreate among Gen-Z. International Journal of Policy Sciences and Law, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp. 994-1012.

Taylor, M.; Murray, J., (2020, February 10). ‘Overwhelming and terrifying’: the rise of climate anxiety, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/10/overwhelming-and-terrifying-impact-of-climate-crisis-on-mental-health.

Watts, J., & Campbell, D. (2020). Half of child psychiatrists surveyed say patients have environment anxiety. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/nov/20/half-of-child-psychiatrists-surveyed-say-patients-have-environment-anxiety.

Wu, J., Snell, G., & Samji, H. (2020). Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(10), e435-e436. doi: 10.1016/s2542-5196(20)30223-0.

2 thoughts on “Is climate change affecting our mental health?

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