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Climate change and mental health

Climate change, global warming, natural disasters, the weather, these are well-known topics that have wriggled into our daily conversations now and then. When talking about climate change, it’s easy to assume that it only concerns mother nature and the environment. After all, global warming awareness has existed since the 1980s and efforts to address the issue have been doubled down and culminated in notable events such as the 2015 Paris Agreement. Today however, a new threat has risen from climate change, and it is one that concerns our mental health.

A new-old concern

Technically speaking, the effects of climate change on mental health have been well-documented for a long time, however the demand for psychosocial support to manage the challenges presented by climate changes has only gained a surge in recent years. To understand how climate change affects mental health, we must first understand the operant definition of climate change, global warming and natural disasters.

Climate change as defined by the UN, is the long-term shifts in weather patterns and temperature. These shifts occur as a result of natural causes, such as changes in the solar cycle, emissions from the volcano or variations in the earth’s CO2 levels. However, today’s climate change patterns are mostly attributed to manmade activities, such as intensive forest logging, the burning of fossil fuels or any environmentally harmful power sources, and a disproportionate transportation/vehicle to human ratio.

Meanwhile, global warming is the gradual increase of the earth’s temperature caused by the greenhouse effect, which is an accumulation of CO2, CFCs and other pollutants. Both global warming and climate change possess a correlational relationship with each other.

Lastly, natural disasters are defined as natural events that occur and result in great damage or loss of life. Common examples of catastrophes may include flooding, heat waves, typhoons/tornadoes, earthquakes or the explosion of nuclear power plants to name a few.

How climate change affects humans

Besides causing natural disasters that result in the loss of our homes or natural habitats, climate change can affect us on a physiological and psychosocial level. The negative physiological effects that climate change poses to us can range from death to poor health conditions such as malnutrition and heat strokes, even general ENT discomfort.

On a psychosocial level, climate change is known to cause stress, anxiety and depression in people. If we dive deeper into the topic, climate change has also been linked to increased aggression and crime in the society, as well as suicide rates.

Prominent examples of climate change-induced psychosocial effects

The EU heatwave

At the time of the writing, a major heat wave is sweeping across Europe as we speak. News publication website Grid reports that Spain and Portugal have currently registered a death toll of 2000 each, resulting from the onset of the heat wave. According to mental health researcher Laurence Wainwright whom Grid had consulted on the subject matter, the heat waves pose moderate to severe effects on individuals who have undergone psychiatric treatments. He claims those impacted may experience severe-than-usual episodes of manic or hypomanic state of bipolar disorder, depressive disorder and schizophrenia. During these times, hospitals may see an increase in admission rates. He added that the extreme heat is linked to increased aggression and violent behaviors, and posits that the serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter, could be the missing link to the social phenomenon.

“There’s a hypothesis around serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters, and the way in which serotonin potentially modulates aggressive behavior and helps with self-constraint. Some people hypothesize that the interplay between serotonin, aggression and heats might be partially responsible for the increase in levels of violent crime during heat waves. But the situation here, as with most things, is probably multifactorial. There’s socio-economic, behavioral, psychological, biological, environmental factors all meshing together.”

Wainwright’s sentiments are supported by a study conducted by JAMA on extreme heat and hospital admissions in America, which found that emergency department visits for drug use, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders rose by 8% on days where the country records a higher average temperature. The study believes that heat builds animosity and impatience, which are recipes for increased aggression and violence between people.

South(east) Asia floods

Since Jan 2022, South Asian countries, notably Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and India have reported long seasons of monsoon rain and widespread flooding that has left millions homeless and resulted in a combined total of 4,834 death toll. Of all the six countries listed, Pakistan is the hardest-hit country by the floods. According to UNICEF, it is estimated that at least 16 million of the individuals displaced and affected are children, with 3.4 million of them needing immediate relief. Furthermore, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicts that 600,000 pregnant women within flood-hit regions are in dire need of mental and medical health care.

Millions of women are at risk of facing gender-based violence, and lack proper access to sanitation practices as well as toilets. Meanwhile, children are particularly vulnerable towards water-borne diseases such as malnutrition, diarrhea, respiratory infections and skin diseases. Children who bear witness to the flooding episodes are at risk of developing PTSD, owing to the lack of routine and security in their lives. Unfortunately, the wide reaching effects of the monsoon doesn’t stop in South Asia.

In Malaysia, one of the more developed countries in Southeast Asia, the nation is bracing itself for the monsoon season that has graced its shores since mid-July. Usually, the monsoon is expected to pass by October. However, Malaysian meteorological experts warn that it could persist till year end as a result of the climate change, and cautions against a repeat of the 2021 December floods that plagued the nation. On a psychosocial level, the tragedy caused many families to lose their loved ones, and accounts of people recounting the harrowing experience flooded the Malaysian social media space for days. Apart from having to face the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic that hit the country, underprivileged families not only faced the risk of losing their homes, but also needing to tank the rising living costs i.e. increased food prices as a result of the flood. People experience a greater degree of uncertainty, distress and loss during these times, and it has left a deeply traumatizing mark in them that will remain for years to come.

Trained volunteers and counselors equally at risk

With all the focus that the government has placed on the affected victims, it’s sometimes easy for us to forget about the wellbeing of our trained volunteers and counselors, which is why there’s a need for us to monitor their wellbeing too. Countless studies have established that trained volunteers and counselors are at higher risk of developing PTSD, increased identification with victims, increased anxiety sensitivity and increased risk of depression following prolonged exposures to gruesome events at disaster work. It’s important for us to remember much like the affected victims, trained volunteers and counselors may be dealing with these traumatic events within their own circle, and will require some form of social support and monitoring to ensure they do not become victims themselves.

Climate change problem impossible to overcome overnight…

When it concerns climate change and mental health, the causes are difficult to pinpoint. As Wainwright puts it, it is an amalgamation of “socio-economic, behavioral, psychological, biological, environmental factors all meshed together.” These factors work in tandem with one another to create an outcome, and to address one problem is to address the collective, which requires time and continuous effort to produce results. He also warns about eco-anxiety and the need to keep an eye on the younger generation, “...there’s this phenomenon of eco-anxiety, particularly anxiety in young people, about the climate. The studies in this country have shown that every time that there’s a severe weather event, typically a heat wave, young people feel more anxiety about the climate and their future. And that’s quite concerning. It’s tough, we have to maintain a level of optimism and not get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.”

One thing that remains clear is this - Climate change is a serious problem and it is beginning to impact more individuals on a psychosocial level. To disregard the problem is to dismiss not only the wellbeing of mother nature but the wellbeing of the human race. There is a need for us to take the issue seriously and roll out more drastic measures to address the global problem, before things venture to the point of no return.

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