Why Climate Change Could Create a Mental Health Crisis
At 6 am on Tuesday, my phone rang and an automated voice announced that my son’s autism school was closed all day due to “inclement weather.” It’s not unusual for it to snow in December in New Jersey but, as a result of climate change, the past few winters have been for the most part mild with only a snowstorm or two. We, and quite a few New Jerseyans, have gotten out of the habit of numerous snow days. For Charlie, who (like many autistic individuals) struggles with change, an unexpected day off from school is an anxiety-creating disruption.
The erratic weather and extreme weather events like last year’s Hurricane Sandy (which shut down schools across the state for, in some places like my town, more than two weeks) can be unsettling for many, and any, of us. A report from the National Wildlife Federation specifically says that the “uncertainty and upheaval caused by erratic weather might cause more Americans to become depressed, anxious and even suicidal.” Could climate change be creating a mental health emergency?
Psychiatrists, psychologists and public health and climate experts all contributed to the NWF report. The recent prolonged drought in the Southwest, major wildfires in the West and flooding, hurricanes and tornados in the Midwest and East have been taking their toll on Americans:
The panel predicted a rise in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide and violence. The burden will fall especially on children, the elderly and those with existing mental problems, as well as the poor and disadvantaged who are, for example, less able to pay for air conditioning during a heat wave.
Climate change can be especially challenging for the elderly to cope with, as they find themselves living in a world in which familiar parameters have shifted. Children are also very much affected as they will be living for a longer time in a hotter, wetter world. The age-old practice of playing outdoors isn’t the same when days are weirdly wet or intensely hot and (even for those of us not in China where dangerous levels of pollution in many cities have become the norm) the air is heavy and breathing difficult.
It’s enough to give us “solastalgia” — a word coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003, in the midst of a deep drought in New South Wales – according to the NWF report. This condition refers to the melancholy and distress caused by experiencing one’s home environment being ineluctably altered into, as Forbes puts it, a “disquieting new normal.”
Treehugger cites research (pdf) by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox of Cape Breton University about how global warming is impacting Inuit communities in northern Canada. Warmer winters and thinning ice are changing the habits and way of life for those in the remote, coastal community of Rigolet. Already affected by forced relocation and involuntary assimilation after being placed in boarding schools, for many in this Inuit community, traveling over the ice has been a crucial coping activity. Residents who have found themselves stuck inside describe feeling bored and depressed and losing their connection with nature.
One individual indeed says that he is “like a caged animal” when he cannot get outside. That is, it is not just the disruption in our routines or even the damage and destruction done to property due to erratic and extreme weather that addles us. Climate change is connected to people’s whole connection to the land, to the natural world, being severed, leaving them feeling something like a loss of their selves.
Other research, including a 2009 study from the American Psychological Association, (pdf) has linked climate change to increased anxiety and stress. Global warming has also been suggested to be at the root of societal unrest and even a factor in global insecurity and political conflict, including the recent uprisings in the Middle East.
It’s the loss of that connection to nature that is perhaps at the heart of any distress, any solastalgia, that we experience. For my son, a snowstorm doesn’t just mean he has to spend a weekday at home rather than being among the other kids and teachers at his school. He loves to be outdoors on his bike and snow, slush and ice can make bike riding challenging. Nonetheless, he and his dad have still attempted it; they’ve never let a brutally hot day in a summer of record highs stop them either.
The NWF report is a reminder of how, even though many of us live in urban and suburban communities, nature and our connection to it are fundamental for our mental as well as our physical well-being. Fighting climate change is good not only for our bodies but our minds too.
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