Melting minds: how is the climate crisis affecting our mental health?

A hand emerging out of open water
Photo by Nico Macaspac on Unsplash

By Dr Emma Lawrance, IGHI Mental Health Innovations Fellow

It is the cliche refrain that every new generation hears: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Back in MY day…” [insert terrible circumstance here]. And young people today are indeed lucky in many ways, with new opportunities facilitated by new technologies always emerging. But they also face rising mental health challenges. Levels of emotional distress are increasing in UK youth to the extent it’s oft branded a “crisis”.

The finger of blame is pointed to numerous potential causes – increased pressure in the schooling system, social media and cyberbullying, unstable employment prospects. No-one knows for sure.

Young people today are also facing a global future that looks more uncertain and more challenging for humanity thanks to the impacts of the climate crisis and ecological breakdown. And thanks to hyper-connectivity, the threats to our ecosystems and civilisation itself are now presented to us constantly, through the 24/7 news cycle straight to our pockets. It is young people around the world who are leading the charge on climate action, because they are only too aware of what will happen if they don’t. But what is this awareness doing to their mental health?

A rising tide

A growing number of people are sharing their struggles to process loss, fear and anger about ecological breakdown and the climate crisis. Parents are writing into newspapers, and psychologists are reporting more and more people seeking support for what they are terming “eco-anxiety” or “ecological grief”. The feelings of loss and distress about the transformation of one’s homeland has been termed “solastalgia“. There was an outpouring of ‘me too’ following a character on the TV show “Big Little Lies” hiding in the cupboard in her classroom after learning about climate change.

Young people protesting about climate change
Young people across the world have been striking in protest of human-induced climate change. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Sometimes, the testimonies are of those who find their symptoms of mental illness worsening when confronted with the facts of the climate crisis. For others, such information or experiences generate new symptoms. From a neuroscientific perspective, these difficulties make sense. Neuroscience tells us that those with a tendency to experience anxiety struggle with uncertain situations, and that a lack of control over outcomes can further drive anxiety. Both uncertainty and a lack of control characterise many current global trends.

But beyond these conjectures and anecdotal reports, there are currently more questions than there are answers. What is the prevalence of mental ill-health worsened by concerns over our uncertain future? Who is affected? How? Is this really a factor driving increased emotional distress in children and young people? When is the response of fear and anger unhealthy and unhelpful, and when is it a healthy and rational response to the facts?

There is limited hard evidence here, though a few survey results indicate it warrants attention. A Yale study of US adults found that of those who know climate change is happening, 62% feel afraid and helpless. In the UK a smaller (and perhaps less rigorous) survey found 40% of 16-24 year-olds feel “overwhelmed” by climate change. This echoes another small commissioned US survey revealing 72% of 18-34 year-olds reported negative news stories about the environment sometimes impact their emotional wellbeing.

Bringing hard evidence to a hot topic

The mental health implications of climate change are receiving growing clinical and academic attention. The American Psychological Association issued a 2017 report on “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate“, and a recent issue of Nature Climate Change was dedicated to the mental health implications. These reports are echoed in a flurry of recent papers, media articles and conferences. While the more intangible, indirect links still lack evidence, we know more about the direct impacts of climate change on mental health. Many are shocked to learn that psychiatric medications can impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature, including patients themselves. Heatwaves and atypical weather are linked with worsened mood, more severe symptoms of mental illness and increased episodes and hospitalisations for psychosis and other mental health issues (e.g. see here, here and here). At a local and global scale, are healthcare systems prepared for this?

The picture is complex, and hence effect sizes hard to measure and plan for. With mental health far less understood and generally overlooked compared with physical health issues, it perhaps comes as no surprise that it has been absent from the conversation on climate crisis action and adaption. This needs to change.

The Institute of Global Health Innovation will work with the Grantham Institute to begin to understand what we know, and importantly what we don’t know, about the implications of climate change for mental health. We can work with clinicians, health economists, climate change researchers and public health experts to address these questions. And importantly, work towards solutions. We can work with IGHI’s network of mental health charity partners to understand the impact on the mental health of young people. Only once we have a growing evidence base can we properly account for this in government, in the healthcare system, and in our plans to help individuals and communities adapt to a changing climate. We want to help young people feel lucky again.

A rainbow emerging from clouds on a black background
There is reason to be hopeful for the future. Photo by Makoto Tsuka on Unsplash

Dr Emma Lawrance is the Institute of Global Health Innovation’s mental health innovation fellow. You can read more about her work here.

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