Climate change triggers mental illness

Recently the term “climate anxiety” has crept into the lexicon to better describe our growing concerns about climate change. While there is evidence that climate anxiety can be identified and reliably measured, what’s less clear is how it relates to mental illness. Mental health providers across the world are noting the presence of climate anxiety in their patients; however, the degree to which it is influencing mental illness is not yet clear, though evidence addressing this question is slowly growing.

Climate change triggers mental illness

In mid-September, with much of the American West engulfed in flames, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the Northern Hemisphere just experienced its hottest summer on record. Reports like this are increasingly common, and with each one climate change continues to morph from a vague notion of far-off future catastrophe to an unsettling reality unfolding before our eyes. While denial continues to hinder efforts to respond to climate change, nearly three fourths of Americans now think it’s occurring, more than 60 percent believe it is caused by humans, and more than two thirds report they’re at least “somewhat worried” by it.

For years now, mental health clinicians have seen climate anxiety influencing presentations of mental illness in a variety of ways, some extreme. For example, one case reported in the medical literature discusses a 17-year-old patient who was so concerned about climate change that he became delusional, believing that if he continued to drink water or use it for tasks at home, millions of people would soon die as a result of his consumption of their water supplies. Similarly, a study of individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder found that nearly a third of individuals with OCD in Australia had compulsions focused on checking light switches, water taps, stoves and other items to reduce their carbon footprint.

Recent studies are starting to look at links between climate anxiety and mental illness in larger samples to help better understand the directionality of their relationship. In a U.S. survey of more than 340 people published in 2018, climate concerns were associated with depressive symptoms. Ecological coping, which includes proenvironmental behaviors such as reducing energy consumption, appeared to be protective against depression, indicating climate concerns and poor coping skills to address them could be causing depressive symptoms. In Tuvalu, an island country in the Pacific Ocean at significant risk of being devastated by climate change in the near future, a survey published this year found that 87 percent of respondents reported such severe climate anxiety it impaired their ability to perform at least one activity of daily living. Such high rates of debilitating distress in this group suggest that individual populations will likely see more mental illness stemming from concerns about climate change as its repercussions draw nearer to them. 

So who might be more vulnerable to mental illness secondary to the uncertainties around climate change? Unsurprisingly, climate anxiety appears higher in individuals with more concern about environmental issues at baseline and those already experiencing direct effects of climate change. Climatologists also face increased risk given their in-depth knowledge on the issue coupled with the frustrating task of trying to convey it to individuals and governments that often deny or downplay it. People with high levels of neuroticism, a personality trait that increases susceptibility to mental illness, are also likely to be at high risk.

Young people are a demographic of particular concern, since a recent national survey revealed that climate changes makes 57 percent of American teens feel afraid and 43 percent hopeless. There is an extensive generational gap in climate change concern, with younger individuals being more likely to believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes. Young people also report more functional impairment secondary to climate anxiety than older people.

As younger people embrace with growing certainty the likelihood they could be inheriting a dying planet, many are so concerned they’re considering not having children in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Their worries are especially alarming in light of growing suicide rates among adolescents and young adults, with a tripling of the rate among people aged 10–14 during 2007–2017. We don’t know whether climate anxiety might be affecting suicide rates in this demographic, but the possibility of a connection demands ongoing vigilance and investigation.

The sociologist Émile Durkheim, who published the first extensive study of suicide in 1897, posited that many suicides happen when free-thinking individuals feel disconnected from society and there’s a weakening of a society’s regulatory institutions. Our current politically fueled controversy over climate change seems to present a perfect storm for increased suicidality as American youth grow distant from a society run by older political leaders, many of whom deny climate change altogether and even seek to weaken the scientific institutions whose very job it is to bring attention to it.

They’ve also seen activists from their ranks such as Greta Thunberg dismissed and even personally attacked by prominent leaders, demonstrating their concerns are being ignored outright. Climate anxiety among young people is likely greatly magnified by such behavior, given the sense of powerlessness it instills.

Some individuals report adaptive responses to climate anxiety like adopting proenvironmental behaviors and participating in collective action, while others are unable to respond behaviorally at all. It’s not yet apparent how these varying reactions manifest on a population level and how they’re influencing humanity’s response to climate change. However, a recent survey of nearly 200 people found that, while climate anxiety was associated with an emotional response to climate change, it was not correlated with a behavioral response.

If this is true for humanity as a whole, we must urgently help motivate the anxious among us. Doing so successfully will require many approaches, such as delivering cognitive-behavioral therapy to the most severely affected to demonstrating to entire populations that change is possible by better publicizing productive efforts by organizations to reduce their carbon footprints. We can’t let climate anxiety stop us from responding to climate change, because now, more than ever, we need action, not paralysis.

Originally published by ScientificAmerican