How climate change impacts mental health

PTI7_15_2019_000212B File- A family marooned on the top of a hut in the flood-hit locality of Panikhaiti in Kamrup district of Assam | PTI

The world is getting ready for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (CoP26). Scheduled to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12, the CoP26 will discuss health as a science priority area.

It needs to be, as climate change is the “single biggest health threat facing humanity”—according to a new report published by the World Health Organization. Climate change is already causing damage to global health in multiple ways. Some of the climate-sensitive health risks are injury and death from extreme weather; heat-related illness; respiratory issues; water-borne diseases; zoonotic diseases; vector-borne diseases; malnutrition and food-borne diseases; non-communicable diseases; and mental and psychosocial diseases.

The impact of climate change on mental health is often ignored by policymakers. According to the American Psychiatry Association (APA), extreme weather events have been associated with an increase in aggressive behaviour and domestic violence. The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change had observed that floods and prolonged droughts have been associated with elevated levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

The APA also observes that people with mental health conditions are more likely to be affected by extreme weather events for several reasons. One major factor is that psychiatric medications can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate heat and their awareness that their body temperature is rising. And this could result in injury and death. It has been observed that exposure to extreme heat may lead to increased use of alcohol—to cope with stress—and an increase in suicide rates.

People suffering from mental illness are also more likely to live in poverty or to have co-occurring substance use disorders. These factors make it harder for them to cope or adapt to changes related to the climate crisis. In addition, service, infrastructure, and medicine supply chains are often disrupted after disasters. This would severely affect those undergoing treatment for mental illness.

Every year since 2008, an average of more than 20 million people are being displaced because of climate and weather-related incidents like floods and wildfires. Slower moving events like droughts and coastal erosion are also causing migration. This movement along with food scarcity and uncertainty have long-term effects on mental health. The APA warns that children are more likely to be impacted by disasters than adults. They are more likely to have continued trauma-related symptoms after a climate disaster.

A recent report from the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society says that “taking action on the climate crisis is a ‘win-win’ as it will also produce positive impacts on health”. The earth needs healing, and CoP26 has a huge responsibility to take rapid action to reverse climate change.