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Kate Zerrenner headshot

It’s Finally Time to Take the Mental Health Impacts of Climate Change Seriously

By Kate Zerrenner
Mental Health

“Im sorry Ive been so out of touch.” In 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey, my friend reached out to me to let me know that she had been suffering from depression and nightmares. She and her elderly relative were evacuated out of their flooded home in Houston during the storm, marking their door with a Sharpie the date and time that they had been rescued.

Unfortunately, this is just one of the thousands and thousands of stories of people traumatized by living through the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Climate change affects countless industries, including energy and insurance. And since then, the effects of climate change continue to make themselves known. In 2020 alone, there were 22 separate billion-dollar climate and weather disasters, breaking the previous record of 16 in 2017 (the year Hurricane Harvey and several other major hurricanes struck).

Thats not to mention the trauma of those affected by the hurricanes, wildfires, and many other extreme weather disasters that have taken place over the past several years. According to a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, natural disasters occur three times more often than they did 50 years ago.

The psychological harm of surviving a natural disaster has been documented for decades. But with climate change, those natural disasters are no longer purely natural – they are getting more intense, frequent and destructive depending on the event. Protecting people’s mental health and avoiding the costly effects of trauma is yet another reason we should invest in economy-wide climate change solutions.

Climate changes ongoing threat to mental health

In addition to major storms, the U.S. continues to suffer from heatwaves and dramatic drought and flood cycles. This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its latest U.S. Climate Normals, which is updated every ten years. The findings were stark: Temperatures are unambiguously warmer. The largest increases in temperatures have been in the past two 30-year cycles covered by the U.S. Climate Normals: 1981-2010 and 1991-2020.

The psychological impacts of heat and drought include anxiety, depression and, with heat in particular, increased levels of acute psychosis – frankly, the hotter it gets and the longer it stays that way, the more irritable and aggressive people tend to get. A 2018 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that climate change may lead to increased suicide rates as temperatures spike. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 48 percent of Americans feel that climate change is already affecting their mental health.

And there is the psychological aftermath of weather and climate disasters, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms of which include nightmares and depression. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one in six people met the criteria for PTSD, and rates of suicide and suicidal tendencies doubled. PTSD and other mental health effects of catastrophic extreme weather events will likely be felt for years to come.

The disproportionate impacts of climate change

Trauma from weather and climate disasters, intensified by climate change, does not discriminate. There are no exceptions to who may feel the harmful effects of extreme events. However, vulnerable communities – like older people, communities of color, and people with lower incomes – are the ones that bear the brunt of climate change, and the people in those communities are the ones who are least likely to be able to change their circumstances.

A lot of people also have the added stressor of being financially underwater after a storm. Further, many such communities do not have the mental health medical infrastructure that may be present in more affluent populations. Vulnerable communities are typically less able to evacuate in extreme weather, and are more exposed to poor air quality and harmful extreme heat – during these events and throughout the year.

A 2017 study found that about 30 percent of the global population is exposed to temperatures exceeding the deadly threshold” for at least 20 days each year – and that number would increase to a terrifying 74 percent if emissions continue to grow. The reality is, vulnerable populations will likely make up the majority of deaths in those scenarios.

What’s next in a changing climate

The Weather Company has predicted the 2021 hurricane season, which starts June 1st, to be more active than normal; given what our new normal look like, it’s a grim prospect. Are the children who grow up in a world of extreme weather events and natural disasters destined to face the same PTSD as children who witnessed other traumas like 9/11? Two solutions must be priorities: acting on climate change and creating mental health infrastructure to address the needs of people affected by the impacts of climate change.

Multiple studies have been done to look at the effects of climate change, but stigma still exists around the issue. Further, as we have passed the year mark in the pandemic, trauma accumulates. Having recently lived through the winter storm in Texas, I concur. Because the impacts of climate change are already apparent, adaptation is key. Resilience must not mean only our infrastructure but also our health—mental and physical. A comprehensive climate action plan should include addressing the human implications.

Neighbors and strangers have banded together during and after extreme weather events to help and support each other. Our government and business communities should do the same and recognize how a holistic view of resilience can play a role in safeguarding our mental health.

Image credit: Finn/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner