6 new insights into climate change and mental health

The Lancet is one of the most trusted medical science journals in the world. This week they published a new scientific report on health and climate change, entitled The 2022 Lancet Countdown Report on Health and Climate Change: Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels (Romenello et al., 2022). In the report, scientists indicate that due to human activity, the global temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees compared to pre-industrial times. Although it is well known that climate change has catastrophic effects on natural systems (e.g., rising Arctic temperatures are destroying the ecological niches of polar bears and other species), the new Lancet The report emphasizes that climate change also has serious consequences for human health.

1. As extreme heat waves become more frequent, mental and physical health suffer

Climate change has not only caused the average global temperature to rise, but the frequency of extreme heat waves has also increased. Heat waves have many negative effects on physical health, including kidney damage, increased risk of heat stroke, heart problems and can lead to problems during pregnancy.

Heat waves also have many negative effects on mental health. They can lead to sleep problems and reduce people’s ability to exercise. Healthy sleep and exercise are important for maintaining good mental health. In addition, hot flashes limit opportunities to go out and meet other people, leading to increased loneliness, which can worsen depression. Droughts can lead to a drastic reduction in food production, which can cause economic hardship for farmers and can worsen their mental health. In addition, higher temperatures have been shown to increase violence and conflict and even suicide.

2. Forest fires have a negative impact on mental health

In addition to heat waves and resulting droughts, the likelihood of wildfires has increased dramatically. According to the report, the likelihood of being exposed to high fire danger days increased in 61 percent of countries from 2001-2004 to 2018-2021. Wildfires have many direct and indirect negative effects on mental health. Experiencing the loss of property or even loved ones as a result of a raging fire can cause severe trauma and increase the likelihood of disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Wildfires can also contribute to health problems, such as lung problems related to smoke inhalation. Larger burn wounds can also lead to mental health problems.

3. Flooding can be very traumatic

Wildfires are not the only extreme weather events that threaten mental health. The report highlights the July 2021 floods in Germany and other countries in North-West Europe. Due to the heavy rainfall, the floods became so great that entire villages were destroyed. More than 200 people die. Experiencing such an event can result in trauma similar to wildfires. Furthermore, when critical mental health support infrastructure, such as psychotherapy practices and psychiatric hospitals, are destroyed by floods, patients’ mental health may deteriorate due to a lack of appropriate treatment.

4. Climate change threatens food security and may force people to migrate

Food insecurity, for example due to drought, can also force people to migrate from their home country to another place with more food. This can have adverse effects on mental health, as social structures grown up are disrupted and people are separated from friends and family. This can be particularly difficult for older people, marginalized communities and people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

5. Concern about climate change is real

People can be afraid of many different things, from spiders to blood to leaving their home or interacting with other people. The authors of Lancet The report highlights that due to the increasingly frequent effects of the climate crisis, from wildfires to floods and droughts, concern about climate change and environmental anxiety are becoming more common. Especially for younger people, the thought that more extreme weather events will happen in the future, such as wildfires, can be a strong source of fear. Psychologists need to study these new types of anxiety problems and develop treatment options.

6. Action plans for the climate crisis must include mental health

The authors of Lancet The report highlights that despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the negative mental health impacts of the climate crisis, few national adaptation plans to address the climate crisis include specific solutions to mental health issues. Only 28 percent of countries include mental health in their action plans. It is clear that more needs to be done to combat the mental health crisis caused by the climate crisis.

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