Why the Climate Crisis is the World’s Biggest Mental Health Problem

By Mark Campbell, GreenGreenGreen Editor

If you are worrying yourself into depression about future problems caused by climate change, you are far from alone.

Yet climate change is not just about the future. Its consequences are hitting hard today. That’s why many call it a climate emergency, or a climate crisis.

Many more just haven’t woken up to reality yet — probably because the whole issue has been framed, especially in the United States, as a political issue.

Of course it isn’t. Facts are facts. The world is warming at an alarming rate. So fast that we simply have to do something about it NOW to protect life on earth.

The rapid increase in carbon dioxide levels has been caused by human activity. Even if some people don’t want to believe that, their stance is irrelevant. We still need to take action to fix the problem. And quickly.

A May 2021 report led by scientists at Imperial College, London, warned that climate change is already affecting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Climate change is no longer a mental health ticking time bomb. It is a global minefield, and explosions have been going off everywhere without sufficient emphasis placed on the casualties.

It is important that we recognise how climate change is negatively affecting mental health.

And it is equally important to search for happiness among the gloom — signs that the situation could improve, and action we can all take to feel that we are making a positive difference.

There are three broad reasons for climate change affecting mental health, and we will look at each one:

  • Anxiety about future climate change problems
  • Mental health issues caused by the effects of present day extreme weather, such as floods and wildfires
  • Suicides directly caused by extreme weather, such as heat
Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Anxiety — Climate Change Will Ruin Everything

The facts are clear, the world is finally waking up, and there is no getting away from the carefully analysed predictions of devastation to communities across the world — unless preventative action is taken urgently.

Climate crisis deniers are seen as the new Covid-19 deniers. The new flat earthers. But perhaps, some of these people are wilfully living in denial because the impending doom is just too difficult to contemplate.

Those who have got their heads around the issue know only too well that there will be no escape from the biggest thing ever to happen to the human race. The Covid pandemic will be a walk in the park compared to a full blown climate crisis.

Unless we, as united people of the planet, can do what it takes to stave off devastation.

I’m using emotive language here, only because that is how serious the problem truly is. Which of course is going to lead to anxiety. I myself have grave concerns for the futures of my four children, and any grandchildren that come along.

The Imperial College report found that “climate change exacerbates mental distress, particularly among young people, even for individuals who are not directly affected.”

The condition is commonly becoming known as eco-anxiety.

The report was led by Emma Lawrance, who said:

“Anecdotally there are rising rates of distress, and it is going to affect a huge number of people.

“The grief and fear that comes with that, and especially for young people who see inaction on climate, can really exacerbate distress.”

YouGov / bacp survey in the UK pointed to more than half of the nation’s population (55%) believing that climate change had already had a negative impact on their mental health.

This was all due to anxiety about the future. The survey found that:

Of those who said climate change has affected their mental health, 65% were concerned about the impact on the natural world; 63% about increased frequency of natural disasters; 58% were worried about what the world would be like for future generations; and 30% were worried about how their life would be affected.

A bushfire rages out of control in New South Wales (Ash Hogan / Flickr)

Mental Health — Lives Already Affected By Climate Change

It should be of no surprised that the Imperial College report found “clear evidence for severe distress following extreme weather events.”

Climate change has started to have an impact on our lives by creating more frequent and extreme weather conditions.

In many parts of the world, this has manifested in wildfires, floods or droughts. Lives have been lost and people have been traumatised.

Emma Lawrance of Imperial College London added:

“If you have lost your home, if you’re at risk of repeated flooding, if you’re grieving because you’ve lost a family member to a fire or your livelihood because of a drought, that is shock and trauma that translates for some into very prolonged distress and diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety, depression and increased risk of suicide.”

The report claimed that 40 times as many people might suffer mental than physical trauma arising from a weather disaster. It noted that the Australian government spent A$76m ($59m / £42m) providing mental health support after the devastating 2020 bushfires.

Reasons included the loss of loved ones, homes, jobs, and access to water, food and healthcare.

Suicides — Directly Caused By Rising Heat

It was a shocking finding from the Imperial College report that: “There is a clear relationship between increased temperatures and number of suicides.”

Climate change may have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers, according to research.

And a report led by Marshall Burke and six others from Stanford, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that higher temperatures had increased suicide rates in the United States and Mexico.

Their disturbing report warned:

“Mental well-being deteriorates during warmer periods. Unmitigated climate change could result in a combined 9,000–40,000 additional suicides across the United States and Mexico by 2050, representing a change in suicide rates comparable to the estimated impact of economic recessions, suicide prevention programmes or gun restriction laws.”

Photo by Nghia Le on Unsplash

The Win-Win Solution

Tackling the climate emergency successfully gives us two incredibly positive results:

  • Saving lives and livelihoods around the world, currently threatened by climate change;
  • Preventing mental health problems of hundreds of millions around the world, being caused by climate change.

It is clearly a mammoth task but one which governments and industries have been forced to face up to.

We can hope that they act with purpose in sufficient time to avoid catastrophe — but we can also put pressure on the most powerful organisations ourselves, to improve our own mental health, as much as making a meaningful protest.

We can also lead more eco-friendly lifestyles, making ethical consumer choices, to remove feelings of guilt in the knowledge that we, at least, are doing something positive about the problem.

Emma Lawrance, of Imperial College London, said:

“Mental health is the unseen impact of climate change at the moment. It is a big problem that is going to affect more and more people into the future, and in particular exacerbate inequality.

“Taking climate action seems to be very positive for mental health, both on an individual and community scale, but also as a society.

“Climate actions that create greener, cleaner cities and reduce inequalities can potentially improve the mental health of all citizens.”

Mark Campbell
Mark Campbell
Editor of GreenGreenGreen, Mark has been a journalist for more than 30 years, campaigning on environmental issues. Living a vegan lifestyle, he writes and creates content for ethical businesses and organisations across the world.