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El costo a la salud mental del cambio climático


La frecuencia e intensidad crecientes de las catástrofes graves exponen a más personas a sucesos traumatizantes como el huracán Katrina, que devastó las comunidades de Nueva Orleans y obligó a miles de residentes a abandonar sus hogares en 2005.

This is a legally approved translation of an Eos article.

Content warning: This article discusses suicide and potential risk factors for suicide.

Megan Irving, a mental health therapist from Oregon, USA, commonly assists people in managing stress caused by relationships. However, Irving and other mental health professionals are increasingly aiding clients who experience a different type of stress, potentially more widespread: discomfort caused by the effects of our changing climate.

Researchers have increasingly linked the impacts of climate change to negative mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. However, individuals and communities can take steps to enhance their emotional resilience to climate-related stressors, as suggested by the researchers.

The effects of climate change can have various impacts on our physical health. The most obvious ones are cases of mortality. In July 2018, an unprecedented heatwave in Japan caused the deaths of over a thousand people; researchers later proved that this event could not have occurred without climate change [Imada et al., 2019]. Additionally, numerous non-fatal health problems can worsen due to climate change. For instance, respiratory issues have been linked to wildfires, which are becoming more severe and prevalent with climate change, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme [2022].

However, beyond the physical illnesses caused or exacerbated by climate change, there is a possibility of a series of mental health problems, said Christie Manning, an environmental psychologist at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It makes sense that climate change affects how we feel, said Manning, co-author of the report “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate” published by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and EcoAmerica. Its harmful effects seem to dominate the news, and the problem often feels unmanageable and beyond our control, she said. “The individual actions we can take feel so insignificant compared to the problem.”

The Trauma of Sudden Onset Events

When assessing how our mental functioning is impacted by climate change, Manning and other mental health experts tend to identify consistent patterns. “It’s fairly standard these days to think about the impacts on mental health in three general categories,” Manning stated.

The first category is caused by acute events such as devastating storms, wildfires, and floods. Sudden onset events can cause trauma, which often manifests as PTSD and has been linked to anxiety, major depressive disorder, and substance abuse, stated Manning. In 2006, researchers surveyed over 400 community college students living in the surrounding region of New Orleans. All study participants had been affected by Hurricane Katrina the previous year, and over half of them lived in the Ninth Ward, an area that suffered some of the worst destruction from the storm. The researchers found that nearly half met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD [Lowe et al., 2013].

Following a series of devastating wildfires that ravaged California in October 2017, residents living in the affected counties reported feelings of trauma and guilt, as well as anxiety, depression, and solastalgia (defined as a melancholic longing for a home environment that has been altered), according to a survey of over 2,200 households. And this suffering persisted over time, the research team found; respondents reported similar feelings both immediately after the fires and several months later. “We need people to understand that this is not ‘over’ for us,” one respondent wrote. The researchers, led by Mitchell Snyder from the University of California, Davis, reported their findings at the 2022 AGU Fall Meeting.

Natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, have also been linked to an increase in suicide rates. Jennifer Horney, an epidemiologist from the University of Delaware in Newark, and her colleagues showed that in US counties that have experienced a natural disaster, suicide rates increased by 23% in the first three years after the disaster compared to the three years prior [Horney, 2020]. The team reported their findings in 2020 in the journal Crisis.

As the climate continues to change, it is predicted that the frequency and intensity of acute events such as wildfires and hurricanes will increase. According to recent research, compound disasters (multiple destructive events, such as a landslide followed by a fire) are also more likely with climate change. “Climate change is growing in its physical manifestations,” said Manning. And that means that more people will be exposed to potentially traumatic events, he added. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to not experience climate change.”

Condiciones crónicas

Dos personas observan las secuelas tras una catástrofe de una casa.
Credit: iStockphoto/VladTeodor

The events that evolve at a slower pace (and are of a nearly chronic nature) are responsible for the second category of impacts. Gradual changes in our environment linked to climate change include prolonged droughts, desertification, and persistent heat waves. Changes in temperature and weather patterns can trigger a sense of uncertainty, said Manning. “It makes people question what is happening.” Particularly for those who have a close relationship with the land (whose identities, cultures, or livelihoods depend on environmental predictability), this uncertainty can turn into feelings of hopelessness and despair, sometimes with tragic outcomes.

Epidemiologist Azar Abadi and her colleagues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health recently studied the link between drought exposure and suicide risk in the United States. Using data from 2000 to 2018 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Evaporative Demand Drought Index, they found a correlation between drought conditions and high rates of firearm suicides, especially in non-urban populations. Abadi, who presented her team’s findings at the 2022 AGU Fall Meeting, stated that rural communities are more vulnerable. These findings are particularly concerning, as some groups in rural areas are already overrepresented in suicide cases compared to the general population.

According to researchers, the suicide rate in the United States is expected to increase as the temperature rises. A team led by economist Anna Belova from consulting firm ICF examined various global climate models and corresponding warming scenarios of 1 to 6°C. They found that up to 1,600 additional suicides could occur each year due to climate change [Belova et al., 2022]. The researchers published their findings in GeoHealth.

Suicide is a tragic manifestation of mental distress, and it is important to understand its causes, stated Abadi. However, he noted that climate change and mental health are controversial topics and can be challenging to engage people in discussions about them. “When these two issues are combined, it is not an easy conversation.” But it is critical to acknowledge mental distress, Abadi said. “When we talk about well-being, it is a combination of physical and mental health.”

Ansiedad climática

The third category of mental health repercussions induced by climate change is characterized as a persistent and unshakable concern, unease, or anger. These feelings, sometimes collectively referred to as climate anxiety, are produced when one realizes that the environment is, perhaps indelibly, changing. According to Manning, a person does not need to have a personal traumatic experience to be affected. On the contrary, the concern, unease, or anger may be “related to a worry about what will happen and what we have already lost,” she stated.

People continue to feel anxious, depressed, and angry about what they see happening.

Out of the three categories of mental health effects induced by climate change, climate anxiety is the most common one affecting Irving’s clients. This could be due to people being more aware of climate change and its harmful effects than they were a decade ago, according to Irving, who serves clients in Portland and Rockaway Beach, Oregon. Climate anxiety appears to be dominant – a 2019 survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association revealed that more than two-thirds of Americans suffer from it [American Psychological Association, 2020]. Restlessness and uncertainty are natural responses to the growing awareness of climate change, even if a person’s cultural identity or lifestyle is not closely tied to the environment, says Irving. “People are still anxious, depressed, and angry about what they see happening.”

Angry, bewildered, and terrified

Residentes llenan sacos de arena mientras se preparan para la llegada del huracán Florence en septiembre de 2018 en Wrightsville Beach, Carolina del Norte.

Residents fill sandbags as they prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Florence in September 2018 in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Credit: Mark Wilson via Getty Images.

According to Irving, younger generations’ responses to climate change are often marked by a kind of anger: “Young people are angry, confused, and terrified that bigger actions are not being taken.” Emotions such as anger, shame, sadness, and despair are more evident in youth-led protests against climate change. Many young people feel that they are being forced to grow up in a world where the effects of climate change have already been set in motion by previous generations: a recent survey of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 (mostly belonging to Generation Z) revealed that over 80% believe that people have not taken care of the planet [Hickman et al., 2021].

Irving’s generation came before Generation Z, but thinking about climate change and its effects triggered similar emotions in her, she said. “I began to feel anxious,” she stated. “I began to feel depressed.”

Around ten years ago, Irving started seeking resources to improve his own mental health. Taking care of oneself, or “doing the work,” as Irving called it, is particularly important for those working on the frontlines of mental health: they are the individuals expected to be strong for others and provide solutions.

While searching for resources to help process their own feelings related to climate change, Irving came across the Climate Psychology Alliance, an organization dedicated to supporting those who experience distress as a result of climate change. Since then, Irving has participated in several climate cafes organized by the Alliance, which are virtual gatherings open to anyone concerned about the climate crisis. The events are moderated, but serve as open forums for participants to discuss and share their concerns, and connect with like-minded individuals.

Irving stated that realizing others were also struggling with similar feelings was cathartic. “It relieved me to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.”

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The effects of mental health on the climate crisis do not affect everyone, nor do they impact in the same way when they do. Researchers have found that communities living in close proximity to the land, in places where environmental conditions are rapidly changing, are at a higher risk.

Ashlee Cunsolo, a health geographer at the Labrador Campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, is someone who knows this well. For over a decade, Cunsolo has worked with Inuit communities and has documented the concept of “ecological grief” – a term she coined with her colleague Neville Ellis [Cunsolo and Ellis, 2018] – which describes how community members feel when their places of origin undergo change.

The seasonal cycles in Nunatsiavut, an autonomous territory of the Inuit in Labrador, are largely dictated by the ebb and flow of sea ice. A thick layer of ice means safe conditions for travel and hunting, but in Labrador, as in many parts of the Arctic, it is warming up. It is one of the fastest-warming places in Canada, Cunsolo said. “Labrador has been on the front lines of climate change for decades.” As a result of this warming, sea ice is forming later in the year and retreating earlier than it used to; it is also not growing as thick as it used to. Currently, there are longer periods when it is not safe to venture onto the ice.

Susan Saksagiak from Nain, the largest community in Nunatsiavut, explained to Cunsolo that the feeling of being confined weighs heavily on the mental health of the Inuit. “When people have to stay at home for longer periods of time, it’s tough on the mind.”

In 2013, Cunsolo conducted interviews with Saksagiak and 23 other Inuit for Lament for the Land, a documentary created in collaboration with five Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut (lamentfortheland.ca). Throughout the interviews, members of the community expressed their feelings of losing their sense of identity as their homeland changed before their eyes, negatively impacting their mental health. “You lose control of a part of your life,” said Derrick Pottle, a resident of Rigolet, the southernmost community in Nunatsiavut.

But a few years ago, the members of the community came together to fight against the losses they were experiencing: they began to develop programs designed to improve the mental health of their youth and strengthen the resilience of their entire community. The work was initially motivated by a tragedy: in one year, seven youth from Nain committed suicide. In addition to providing a supportive environment for Inuit youth, community members also sought more opportunities to establish meaningful cultural connections and engage in intergenerational dialogue.

One of the programs, Going Off, Growing Strong, encouraged young Inuit to participate in activities such as preparing traditional meals, repairing snowmobiles, and engaging in art and crafts with older people.

When faced with something as frightening as climate change, one of the best ways to cope is by finding a community.

“All of these things make people feel connected to their culture, their ancestors, their family, and their community,” stated Cunsolo. The feeling of connectivity – that is, social support – has been linked to lower levels of psychological distress, according to research by Banks and Weems (2014).

Irving stated, “We need a community. When there is something as scary as climate change, one of the best ways to cope with it is by finding a community.”

The programs developed by the residents in Nunatsiavut serve as a positive example of what Cunsolo refers to as “tenacious hope”. According to Cunsolo, tenacious hope is not an excuse for inaction, as it may be for pure hope, but rather a hope born from pain that motivates action. It involves having a mindset of not dwelling on what has already been lost, but instead being prepared to prevent future losses. “We can fight with all our might to ensure that no more is lost.”

Cunsolo employs her own resilient form of hope. She says it’s what keeps her going when her work forces her to witness people suffering as their ancestral lands and ways of life are irreversibly altered. “It’s like being surrounded by the pain of the world all the time,” she states. “It’s a heavy burden to bear.” Cunsolo advocates for policies that recognize the human, mental, and emotional impact of climate change. Spreading awareness of how climate change affects us in so many different ways and connecting with people is what gives meaning to her work, she says.

te ayudará a manejar mejor el estrés

Taking time for self-care will help you better manage stress.

Self-care in regards to climate change seems to vary for each individual.

Josh Edelson, an independent photojournalist based in Novato, California, regularly captures photos of wildfires in the Golden State. He can spend entire days in the midst of flames, living in his car and dodging burning trees, while capturing images for Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, among other news agencies.

For about 10 years, he has been documenting forest fires, so he has witnessed the change. “The fires are becoming bigger and more intense,” Edelson stated.

Since the 2015 Valley Fire destroyed Middletown, a small town in Northern California near Santa Rosa, flames have been more likely to ravage inhabited areas, as observed. “Almost every year since then, there has been a larger fire with more damage and destruction.” These conflagrations leave trails of destruction, both of structures and lives, of which Edelson has been a firsthand witness.

Let’s go to the store, and I look around imagining how things would look in a fire.

After covering a fire, it may take Edelson several days to feel normal again. Sometimes, even everyday events like grocery shopping with his wife can trigger memories of the fire. “We go to the store, and I look around imagining how things would look in a fire,” he stated. “It still echoes in your mind.”

Edelson finds it helpful to process his experiences with other people who understand what he has gone through. “I have a support group of other photographers who cover fires,” he said. “We talk a lot among ourselves, and it’s incredibly therapeutic.”

Seeking support from others is a proven strategy in combating mental health problems, including those triggered by climate change. It is therapeutic to be understood and validated, and communities can take on various forms, from individuals united by a shared experience to strangers gathered by a support group. Irving often encourages his clients to seek out others with whom they can have similar experiences. “I have a growing list of support groups,” he said.

Aside from increasing social cohesion, individuals can also increase their resilience to distress caused by climate change in other ways. One technique is to develop a practice, also known as a habit or routine, that provides strength, said Manning. This could be meditation, mindfulness, or participation in a faith-based community. It could also involve therapy, she added. The Climate Psychology Alliance maintains a directory of over 100 mental health service providers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom who are committed to addressing mental health needs related to climate change.

Individuals can also assist themselves and others by learning and practicing the principles of psychological first aid. This intervention strategy – designed to help people feel safe, calm, empowered, connected, and hopeful after a disaster – can help reduce long-term mental health issues [Birkhead and Vermeulen, 2018].

In addition, according to Manning, preparing for the future can help individuals cope with the stress related to climate change. The reconfiguration of a home to make it more resilient to weather and disasters – for example, raising it on stilts to prevent flooding – can be beneficial for mental health.

However, even relatively simple (and less costly) measures can also help. Gathering an emergency supply box with food and first aid items can make people feel more prepared and capable of facing an uncertain future, she stated. “People who do this type of preparation work feel better and do better.”

Participating in a positive work environment that makes a difference is another proven method for building resilience related to climate change. When individuals help others, their own well-being increases. This has been shown time and time again, in communities ranging from individuals affected by hurricanes [Spialek et al., 2019] to people impacted by floods [Woodhall-Melnik and Grogan, 2019].

The effects of climate change are fundamentally altering our lives, and it is disheartening to think about the environmental and social changes that will occur. However, emotional resilience to the effects of climate change can be improved with dedication and effort.

Perhaps discussions about both physical and mental health could be crucial in helping people to honestly confront climate change, said Abadi. “I’ve realized that when we talk about health, people actually listen to us,” he stated. “Health is the best way to communicate about climate change.”

Referencias

According to the American Psychological Association (2020), the majority of adults in the United States consider climate change to be the most pressing issue of our time. This information can be found on their website at www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/02/climate-change.html.

Banks, D. M., and C. F. Weems (2014), Family and peer social support and their links to psychological distress among hurricane-exposed minority youth, Am. J. Orthopsychiatry, 84(4), 341–352, https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000006.

Belova, A., et al. (2022), Projecting the suicide burden of climate change in the United States, Geohealth, 6, e2021GH000580, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021GH000580.

Birkhead, G. S., and K. Vermeulen (2018), Sustainability of psychological first aid training for the disaster response workforce, Am. J. Public Health, 108, S381–S382l, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304643.

Cunsolo, A., and N. R. Ellis (2018), Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss, Nature Clim. Change, 8, 275–281, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2.

Hickman, C., et al. (2021), Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey, Lancet Planet. Health, 5(12), e863–e873, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3.

Horney, J. A., et al. (2020), The impact of natural disasters on suicide in the United States, 2003–2015, Crisis, 42, 328–334, https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000723.

According to Imada et al. (2019), the extreme heat experienced in Japan in July 2018 would not have occurred without the impact of human-caused global warming. This was reported in the journal Sola (volume 15A, pages 8-12) and can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.2151/sola.15A-002.

The authors of this study, Lowe, Manove, and Rhodes (2013), examined the effects of Hurricane Katrina on low-income mothers and found a correlation between posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth. The results were published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, with a DOI of 10.1037/a0033252.

Spialek, M. L., J. B. Houston, and K. C. Worley (2019), Disaster communication, posttraumatic stress, and posttraumatic growth following Hurricane Matthew, J. Health Commun., 24(1), 65–74, https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2019.1574319.

The report, “Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” from the United Nations Environment Programme, was published in 2022 and can be accessed at www.unep.org/resources/report/spreading-wildfire-rising-threat-extraordinary-landscape-fires. It discusses the increasing danger of these types of fires and is located in Nairobi.

Woodhall-Melnik, J., and C. Grogan (2019), Perceptions of mental health and wellbeing following residential displacement and damage from the 2018 St. John River flood, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 16(21), 4174, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16214174.

Datos de autora

Katherine Kornei (@KatherineKornei), Escritora de ciencia

This translation, done by Daniela Navarro-Pérez (@DanJoNavarro), was made possible through a collaboration with Planeteando.

Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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