Rising Temperatures and Deteriorating Mental Health: The Psychological Impact of the Climate Crisis

Our climate is changing. Human activities have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet and increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, heatwaves, hurricanes and storms. Homes, jobs and lives are lost during these extreme weather events, and they can impact our mental health and wellbeing.

Heatwaves and droughts are becoming increasingly common in Canada and around the world, which will have a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. The average temperature in Canada rose by 1.8°C between 1948 and 2020. Heat stress is directly caused by a consistent rise in atmospheric temperatures, which has been linked with an increase in mood disorders, anxiety and fatigue. Warmer night-time temperatures may also dysregulate sleep, causing more people to be anxious, stressed and irritable. Dr. Nick Obradovich was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego during the 2015 heatwave, which was dubbed “the worst heatwave in 25 years” at the time. Drawing on his experience of tossing and turning through the hot nights, he published a study surveying 765,000 Americans to investigate whether there was a connection between warmer night-time temperatures and insufficient sleep. His team found a “robust link” showing that unusually warmer night-time temperatures could reduce sleep quality and exacerbate the physiological and psychological effects of inadequate sleep.

Droughts affect food production and have both direct and indirect effects on the livelihoods of everyone involved in the chain from farmers to grocery store employees and consumers. Faced with the loss of income and sustenance, people may experience depression, anxiety, fatalism and distress, and have increased thoughts of suicide.

Natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes are also becoming increasingly frequent as a result of intense rainstorms and rising sea levels. According to the World Meteorological Organization, there were over 11,000 reported disasters globally between 1970 and 2019—they were attributed to these extreme weather events and resulted in about two million deaths and US$ 3.64 trillion in losses. Such natural disasters cause the loss of lives, homes, crops and jobs, and aggravate the spread of diseases, thus increasing morbidity and mortality. The loss and trauma associated with these catastrophes are risk factors for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, and persist long after the initial emergency.

All of these extreme weather events resulting from climate change will also lead to more internal and external migration. The forceful displacement and loss of homes, jobs and loved ones can amplify people’s mental health conditions and bring about increased incidences of conditions. The unpredictability of the situation faced by migrants may lead to more cases of PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and domestic violence. Additionally, during these crises, there is often a lack of access to healthcare, particularly mental health services, which further deepens mental health emergencies.

Indigenous communities around the world are also greatly impacted by climate change. Melting ice and shifting landscapes affect the traditional ways of life for Inuit communities in Canada. Rapidly declining sea ice diminishes the availability of fish, seabirds and other animals that Inuit communities hunt. Additionally, regressing ice conditions isolate communities that are not connected to road systems and prevent them from accessing healthcare, education and groceries, among other essentials. These negative changes diminish the resiliency of individuals and community members and lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in Inuit communities, particularly among youth.

After a natural disaster event, efforts to repair damage and destruction may heighten inequities between groups. Young people, the elderly, women, people with disabilities or chronic conditions, people experiencing homelessness, ethnic/religious minorities, emergency workers and people with low socioeconomic status have been shown to be more vulnerable to anxiety and mood disorders related to disasters. These groups may have scarce access to resources and support that can reduce coping abilities.

The connections between mental health and climate change are still being investigated and understood. Many countries, including Canada, have policies and programmes to separately address climate change (SDG 13: Climate Action) and mental health (SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being). However, there is a distinct lack of support for mental health issues stemming from the direct and indirect effects of climate change. A report by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica stated that the key to alleviating the negative psychological effects of climate change is to build resilience, for example, by creating programmes and spaces that promote social networking and connection. Additionally, governments and community organizations can continue to develop infrastructure that can provide aid and respite following climate emergencies—offering clean water (SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation) and constructing climate-resilient buildings, especially hospitals and clinics (SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities). Governments and organizations should also work towards mitigating the climate crisis by reducing dependency on fossil fuels (SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy), advocating responsible consumption and lowering waste (SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production) and approving climate actions (SDG 14: Life Below Water and SDG 15: Life on Land).

Climate change may be the biggest health threat humanity faces, and there are direct and indirect effects on our mental health. However, the linkages between a healthy environment and mental health are slowly coming to light. Both citizens and governments must play a part in building a narrative around the issue to safeguard future generations.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha