The evidence of climate change is becoming harder to ignore these days. As reports of floods, heatwaves, fires, and drought across the world hit the news, it is clear that we do need to act now to save this beautiful planet we call our home. While scientists have accumulated a wealth of evidence about the effects of climate change on physical health, there has been much less research into how it can affect mental health.
A recent review of 120 studies published over the past 20 years that investigated extreme weather events, such as heat, humidity, drought, wildfires, and floods, concluded that the possible consequences may include:
- psychological distress
- worsened mental health, particularly for those with existing psychiatric diagnoses
- increased psychiatric hospitalisations
- heightened rates of suicide
The authors of that review came to the conclusion that climate change is likely to affect mental health not only through direct exposure to traumatic weather-related events but also indirectly through its knock-on effects, such as poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.
Young people may be particularly vulnerable to such feelings when they witness a lack of urgency by the world’s political leaders to address environmental dangers such as climate change, habitat loss, and species extinction.
In a recent survey of 10,000 individuals aged 16–25 years in 10 countries, over 45% said their feelings about climate change had a negative impact on their daily lives and functioning.
Ratings of anxiety and distress were significantly associated with the impression that the government response to the climate emergency has been inadequate.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA, preparing for extreme weather events is not only prudent but also helps people manage their ongoing emotional responses to climate threats. Examples of preparation work that can give one a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction is as follows:
- A sense of control
A study of more than 9,000 households in the U.K. found that pro-environmental behaviors — specifically, energy use and recycling — were associated with higher scores on measures of life satisfaction. The study also suggests that if householders share similar pro-environmental attitudes to each other, this is associated with better physical and mental health.
Crucially, however, they found that individual pro-environmental attitudes — independently of the attitudes of housemates — were linked to worse mental health and lower life satisfaction.
So, in a nutshell, a sense of unity in action and collectivism would help lleviate the negative impact of eco-anxiety on mental well-being.
2. Take Action
There are two major misconceptions about eco-anxiety, according to Kalpana Arias, communications director at Force of Nature, which aims to channel young people’s anger and frustration into action.
The first misconception is that eco-anxiety only arises from the ecological crisis itself, whereas in reality, it also stems from our inaction. Force of Nature believes that to avoid being paralysed by anxiety, stress, and anger, the key is to couple these feelings with a sense of agency, community, and vision.
An example of this is activist, Greta Thunberg.
“One of the reasons was I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people didn’t seem to care about anything, that everyone just cared about themselves rather than everything that was happening with the world,” she told The Guardian in a recent interview.
What saved Thunberg was her momentous decision, at the age of 15, to start a school strike outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday, which led to the global Fridays for Future climate movement.
3. Lifestyle changes
There is growing evidence that pro-environmental lifestyle changes, such as minimising one’s carbon footprint and using less of the planet’s limited resources, can help improve psychological well-being in the face of climate threats.
A study of 1,220 people in Canada and 1,001 in the United States found that pro-environmental actions predicted levels of life satisfaction, even after controlling for demographic characteristics such as age, income, and education.
This association with life satisfaction held for 37 out of 39 of the pro-environmental behaviors surveyed. Among the apparently beneficial activities were:
- home composting
- growing your own food
- eating organic food
- talking with children about environmental issues
- avoiding excess packaging in purchases
The authors conclude that pro-environmental behavior, just like other forms of prosocial behavior, such as volunteering, random acts of kindness, and spending money on others, is associated with greater subjective well-being.
4. Connecting with nature
A survey of nearly 20,000 people in the U.K. found that participants who had spent at least 2 hours in contact with nature over the past week were significantly more likely to report good health and high well-being.
The link between contact with nature, health, and well-being remained even after the researchers accounted for the amount of green space that participants had access to locally as well as other possible contributory factors.
It did not seem to matter whether participants got their nature “fix” all in one go or spread throughout the week.
The apparent benefit for health and well-being of spending at least 2 hours a week in nature was comparable to that of achieving the recommended amount of physical activity in the past week.
It is important to remember that eco-anxiety is not a clinical condition that we should try to “cure,” but a rational response to the ecological threats that our planet will face in the coming decades. There are resources available to deal with it as set out above and if required, please seek professional therapy support.