We already know that climate change comes with major public health implications, like the spread of disease as climate refugees flee their homelands and live in close-packed conditions with inadequate sanitation. What we’re now growing to understand is that this includes not just physical, but also mental health. If world governments don’t rise to the challenge, they could face a human-made mental health crisis at a very large scale.
On the most superficial level, the connection is probably pretty easy to make: Climate change can create stress, which can exacerbate or trigger mental health problems. In addition to depression, people may experience anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and a variety of other intense emotional responses to changing conditions.
In 2017, severe hurricanes highlighted the fact that surviving a major storm can leave people with a significant psychological legacy. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for example, people developed anxiety, PTSD and survivor’s guilt in response to living through the historic storm. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico — which had a poor public health infrastructure before Hurricane Maria — the psychological challenges posed by survival also took a heavy toll. Katrina, too, left a wave of mental health problems in its wake.
It’s not just storms or severe flooding that comes at a cost, though. Climate change can cause extreme heat, which may increase stress and aggression. It can also contribute to drought, with some researchers arguing that the wave of farmer suicides in India may be connected to climate change. When your livelihood is closely connected with the environment around you, changes to that environment can be devastating — especially when it’s also tied to your personal or cultural identity.
Even in developed nations with good infrastructure, treating people who suffer from the psychological aftermath of traumatic climate events can be challenging. In Australia, for example, farmers are reluctant…