What most of us don’t discuss is the impact climate change has on our mental health.
An award-winning show called Big Little Lies has a prescient scene in which a second-grader collapses in school after a panic attack.
Upon enquiry by a therapist, we learn the girl is scared because she believes the world is ending. Her class teacher had been discussing the ominous consequences of climate change with the kids that week.
Climate change should be scary for everyone. Those familiar with the destructive effects of climate change already recognise it has altered life as we know it by disturbing weather patterns, economies, food security and physical health.
What most of us don’t discuss, however, is the impact climate change has on our mental health. In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) produced an updated detailed report highlighting the penetrative effects of climate change on mental health.
These include not only stress, depression and anxiety, but also the negative impairment of our social and communal relationships. Ever snapped at someone because it’s unbearably hot and you’ve read tomorrow will be even hotter?
Not surprisingly, children and low-income communities will bear the greatest brunt of climate-induced mental health consequences.
An increasing number of people complain of climate change-induced stress and depression. Even in a nation laced with climate deniers, a 2018 Yale University study found that at least 70 per cent of Americans were “somewhat worried” about climate change. In a related poll in 2018, three quarters of millennials admitted to climate change having adverse impacts on their mental health.
If detailed studies were conducted in Pakistan, imagine what the depression rates would be among flood victims and those who’ve lost their livelihoods because climate change has diminished agricultural yields and, ergo, sources of income.
This overwhelming feeling of helplessness has been termed eco-anxiety in the APA report, and described as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Whereas eco-anxiety is not yet officially included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook for diagnosing mental illnesses, it’s not hard to relate to eco-anxiety. In fact, it is almost an understandable reaction to climate change awareness.
Worrying about children and future generations now invariably carries a climate component; there is no doubt that the world we’re leaving our children with will be laden with our eco-mistakes.
Frustration over half-baked attempts by governments to address climate change, accompanied by the persistent feeling that individual efforts will do little to combat the greatest crisis in human history are all symptoms of eco-anxiety.
Susan Clayton, co-author of the APA report, says there is confirmed evidence of mental health issues being linked to worries about our planet’s future. She says preoccupations such as eco-anxiety, climate change distress and ecological grief are all expected to increase. However, how severely these mental health issues will affect people is contingent upon the steps being taken to curb climate change.
Climate-induced anxiety can present itself in two main circumstances: where the individual has been a victim of a climate-caused disaster, and when there is a persistent fear tinged with sadness about the state of our planet.
Per the Union of Concerned Scientists, between 25 to 50pc of people exposed to extreme weather disasters suffer adverse mental health effects. The litany of symptoms for these include depression, anxiety and also trauma from the loss of a loved one, damage to personal property or even losing sources of livelihood.
These intense emotions eventually subside and are replaced by post-traumatic stress disorder. The severity of the symptoms depends on various factors, including the person’s age, coping mechanism and the proximity to the disaster or devastation.
Alternatively, the long-term effects of climate change on mental health are connected with the loss of livelihood and climate change-induced migration. Individuals may lose a sense of personal and professional identity as occupations and quality of life are affected.
Similarly, losing one’s home, property and a disrupted social structure can arouse feelings of helplessness, fear and a loss of personal autonomy. High levels of stress and depression are further linked to disrupted physical health and lower immunity.
Timely evacuation from a likely disaster-impacted area can help reduce adverse mental health impacts. Once an individual has acknowledged that they are within an anticipated radius of a climate disaster, the aim should be to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible about an impending weather event. Preparations for emergency exit plans, non-perishable food and water storage are all ways to help reduce eco-anxiety. Climate ignorance is no bliss.
The APA report further suggests that those with strong social connections and networks might experience lower rates of psychological distress and that the best way to combat climate anxiety is to build resilience.
Even where domestic environmental policies are not entirely promising, adopting environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices may make individuals feel less climate-anxious as social involvement in a cause helps dispel feelings of powerlessness.
Also read: Can climate change Pakistan?
We can no longer hide from climate change and its unexpected and pervasive impacts.
The 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg went on a school strike and said she doesn’t want hope from adults anymore — she wants them to panic.
Thunberg is right. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms irreversible damage to the planet unless we realistically end all greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
However, the fine line between ‘positive’ panic and anxiety should not be confused. The aim is to pressure governments and businesses into respecting our climate reality while we ourselves remain motivated to do our part.
Panic that triggers feelings of overwhelming helplessness will not improve our climate crisis. You have to believe that even small actions will help you, your children and our planet in this global war against climate change.
Are you examining the effects of climate change in Pakistan? Share your insights with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Hayat is a lawyer and climate change specialist based in Pakistan. She is a 2020 development fellow at The Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organisation. She tweets @saratamman
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