Climate change’s invisible threats for mental health



There is a growing need for an EU agenda that would address mental health challenges linked to climate change, stakeholders told an expert conference in Brussels, urging a shift towards mitigation alongside adaptation efforts.

“We know that experiencing the trauma of your home burning down or being forced to move because there’s a flood, has long tails for mental health, and this has been underappreciated and not considered when we count the costs of climate inaction,” Emma Lawrance from the Imperial College London told the conference ‘Research Perspectives of Climate Health Impact’, organised by the European Commission on 19-20 February.

“This is a historic moment for the EU to create an agenda for priority research in climate and health and my key message is that mental health must be given parity of esteem with physical health in this agenda,” she added.

They explained that extreme weather events have a direct impact on people’s mental health and those already diagnosed with mental health issues are especially affected by climate change-related challenges.

Risk factors and consequences

New terms such as “climate change anxiety” are emerging to reflect the reality of climate change impact on mental health. Young people often experience anxiety when seeing the direct effects of global warming while feeling there is nothing they can do to fix it or stop it.

Researchers have found that these mental conditions can occur after witnessing events such as storms, floods, wildfires, droughts, and extremely high temperatures.

In 2021, a study published in the Lancet showed that out of 10,000 young people canvassed in 10 countries, Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the US, 60% said they feel ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ and associated negative emotions – feeling sad, afraid, anxious, angry, and powerless – with climate change.

“What we’re seeing now is that there’s an interaction between awareness and experience. We know the people who are experiencing these effects are the most worried about, not just what’s happening now, but into their future,” explained Lawrance.

She added that “they’re not just having to recover from this event, but from compounding events and not having as much time to recover before the next one hits. So how do we get out of this vicious cycle?”.

Stakeholders also discussed during the conference there are some groups of the population, such as women, children, people with disabilities and people working outdoors that are extremely vulnerable.

In 2021, the northwestern part of North America experienced an unprecedented extreme heat event (EHE) characterised by high temperatures and reduced air quality that caused approximately 740 excess deaths in the province of British Columbia.

During the heat dome’s hottest eight days in the region, 134 people diagnosed with schizophrenia died, triple the average number of deaths during the same period from 2006 to 2020.

“The sad reality is that awareness of the mental health impacts of climate change is rising because this is a need that’s being experienced by a growing number of people around the world whose lives and livelihoods are being increasingly affected by fossil fuel-driven catastrophes”, said Lawrance.

Not so easy solutions

Cathy Berx, governor of the province of Antwerp, explained to the conference that people are aware of the dangers of climate change for physical and mental health but the sense of urgency in politics and public opinion remains limited.

“We know that prevention is key, but how can you mobilize lots of money if you cannot prove that? After all, maybe you prevented something, but you cannot prove it,” she explained.

Adding that “too many policymakers avoid being frank, open and transparent about the seriousness of the situation and the need for drastic transition”.

For that, Antonio Gasparrini from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, highlighted that it is essential to quantify how cost-effective a certain policy can be.

“There should be an emphasis on mitigation in addition to just adaptation because we see clearly that the benefits of it in terms of reducing drastically climate change increase,” he added.

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