A recent study by Australian and UK public health researchers urges policy-makers and medical professionals world-wide to acknowledge climate change as a mental health issue of the greatest magnitude, then apply a “systems-thinking” approach to efforts to aid and heal.
While “it is now widely accepted that climate change is one of the world’s leading health risks,” said Australian public health expert Helen Berry, lead author of the early April study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, research on the mental health impacts of climate change remains thin on the ground.
Where studies have taken place, the results are troubling. Heat waves “are of particular concern,” Berry says, with research showing “a rise in hospital admissions for mental health issues during heat waves in the Australian city of Adelaide,” and links “between extreme heat, reduced crop yields, and suicides in Indian farmers.”
Flooding is another trigger, with research conducted by Public Health England linking floods in the county town of Lewes, southern England in 2000 to a quadrupling in community levels of psychological distress. “Those psychological problems were still identifiable four years after the flood,” she writes.
Then there is the devastating mental health fallout that occurs in places like Puerto Rico, when weather events cause the kind of infrastructure breakdown that renders a country unliveable for a long period of time. Berry points to the stress experienced by those who stay where “businesses and economic opportunities are damaged, incomes are reduced and productivity falls.” In those situations, “inequality—a key driver of poor health—can also begin to rise,” while social cohesion is impaired by “pressures on time, money, and stress”.
Overall, she writes, “the consensus in the scientific literature is that climate change will increase the number of people exposed to extreme events and, therefore, to subsequent psychological problems.” And those severe mental health effects “disproportionately hit vulnerable people—particularly women, young people, migrants, people living with a disability, and ethnic minorities.”
Despite that consensus, Berry says there has been scant “commitment to do anything about it” until now—perhaps because mental health itself has been so widely neglected. But she cites the World Health Organization’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan for 2013 to 2020 as one source of impetus to address the “huge unmet global need for more and better, research-informed, mental health support.” She adds that, “fortuitously, people seem to worry about climate change collectively rather than personally, and this form of worry might be harnessed to motivate action on climate change and drive improvements in mental health. Both are greatly needed.”
Equally urgent, writes Berry, is the need to recognize that “the complexity of both mental health and climate change means that tackling the two together requires a ‘systems thinking’ approach [which] describes the big picture as well as the detail, taking in complex set of interacting factors—geopolitical, socio-economic, ecological, and environmental—to best identify policy solutions.”
“Just as mental health needs whole person, whole community, whole of life research-policy approaches, so mental health in the context of climate change needs ‘whole person, whole community, whole of life, whole of planet’ strategies, aimed at achieving sustainable well-being for people and place,” she writes in Nature Climate Change. “With its complexity and sensitivity, mental health could be a lead indicator for measuring progress on mitigating the human impacts of climate change.”