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How Climate Change Affects Mental Health

Changes in climate patterns lead to imbalances which result in natural disasters. For example, rising sea levels caused by global warming lead to massive flooding and severe heat waves. These natural disasters lead to loss of lives and properties, leaving many displaced from their homes and jobs, many of whom may not recover until several years after but researchers are beginning to uncover a hitherto unrecognized effect of natural disasters: mental health disorders.

Surveys reveal that many years after Hurricane Katrina; people who were affected are still enduring the mental health effects of the trauma. Many have to deal with anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders more than a

decade later. Half way around the world in India, a similar trend was observed, where farmers become suicidal after heavy heat waves or flooding damage their crops. Furthermore, studies reveal that extreme weather conditions are linked with increases in aggressive behaviour and violence.

Mental Health Changes in Climate Change

A team of researchers from Canada and Australia did a review study to assess the mental health effects of climate change. The study evaluates the spectrum of mental health impacts on a wide variety of people as a result of extreme climate conditions and what actions should be taken to curb the trend.

The review noted that psychological responses to climate change may include grief and despair, aggression and violence, Depression and panic.

Many may lack the requisite coping skills to handle such tragedies and may spiral into anxiety, aggressive behaviours or drug and alcohol dependence to cope with the disaster. Even years after the physical effects of climate change have resolved, Many of these mental health conditions linger, leading to maladaptive thinking and behavioural patterns which may lead to phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders and anxiety disorders.

A father who lost his wife and children in a hurricane may develop mental health disorders that border on self-blame and anxiety. This presents as phobias relating to objects, persons, or locations that trigger the fear responses he had during the disaster.

Who is Vulnerable to Mental Health Effects of Climate Change?

Not everyone who has experienced the horrifying effects of climate change develops mental health disorders. Some people are better equipped mentally and physically to cope with the sudden changes such occurrences cause in their lives; however, certain groups of people are not.

Children, the elderly, the chronically ill, pregnant women and people with mental illness are probably more vulnerable to the mental health complications of climate change and disasters. People of lower socioeconomic status, refugees and the homeless are also possible more vulnerable to mental health issues following extreme climate changes as their disadvantaged position makes it harder for them to recover.

People with mental health challenges may already find it difficult coping with a normal daily routine. Worst still, these people may lack adequate emotional and social support to help them overcome their challenges. Being displaced by natural disasters caused by climate change or losing their loved ones to such events may not only worsen their conditions but it may also trigger a relapse in those who had been recovering.

Moreover, people with mental health problems often depend on social services for therapy, medication and support. In extreme weather situations, many of these services may be disrupted. Even after these disasters, leaving this vulnerable group without care.

The elderly and chronically ill are also at risk of mental health complications of climate change.

These groups of people also require social services and infrastructure for care and support but in the absence of these facilities after a disaster, many may experience an exacerbation of their illnesses. The elderly, who may have physical and cognitive impairment, may also find it difficult coping with the stress of climate change.

Children are also vulnerable to mental health conditions following a disaster. Separation from caregivers, loss of friends and loved ones, parental stress and disruptions in routines are some of the factors that drive these mental health effects in children during disasters.

Responding Now

Researchers have established a close association between mental health challenges and the effects of climate change, and we have to take immediate steps at curbing this. A priority is to address the primary causes of climate change, greenhouse emissions.

Similarly, we also need to address the factors that drive mental health problems in a disaster. This includes improving access to and availability of mental health support during and after a disaster, mental health training for disaster management for first responders and availability of effective social support systems during a disaster.


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