Climate Matters•May 25, 2022
Climate Change and Mental Health
Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. And a growing body of research suggests that climate change can worsen mental health and well-being.
Climate-related risks to mental health and well-being stem from extreme events (like hurricanes) and from gradual, long-term changes (like sea-level rise).
Up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffer depression after a disaster, according to the American Public Health Association.
Reported rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in populations affected by hurricanes vary, and were highest following Hurricane Maria (2017) in Puerto Rico.
Witnessing negative climate impacts on others can contribute to widespread climate anxiety, with 70% of Americans feeling at least “somewhat worried” about global warming.
Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. And a growing body of research suggests that climate change can worsen mental health and well-being for these individuals and many others.
According to the latest IPCC reports, “Approximately 20–30% of those who live through a hurricane develop depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the first few months following the event, with similar rates for people who have experienced flooding.”
As Mental Health Awareness Month ends and hurricane season begins, we’re focusing on scientific insights and reporting resources around climate change and mental health.
Links between climate change and mental health
Climate change presents widespread risks to human health. And a growing body of research provides evidence for climate change impacts on mental health in particular.
In February 2022, a major scientific report from the IPCC systematically reviewed evidence linking climate change to diagnosable mental health disorders and broader outcomes for well-being.
This was the first time that mental health was directly discussed and assessed within IPCC reports—a sign of our growing scientific understanding of the topic, and its importance for the global response to climate change.
Climate-related mental health risks
Climate change presents physical hazards that expose people to conditions (e.g., flooding, extreme heat, or drought) that can introduce or worsen mental health risks.
Climate-related risks to mental health and well-being stem from extreme events (like hurricanes, heatwaves, or wildfires) and from gradual, long-term changes (like sea-level rise, rising temperatures, loss of sea ice, and drought).
According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment:
mental health consequences—ranging from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and [risk of suicide]—can result from exposures to short-lived orprolonged climate- or weather-related events.
The latest IPCC reports (see Chapter 7.2.5) also distinguish climate change-related mental health risks that are:
Direct—such as anxiety, depression or PTSD stemming from personal traumas (injury, displacement, or loss of loved ones) sustained during a hurricane.
Indirect—such as stress, substance abuse, or suicidal ideation among individuals whose livelihoods or food security are affected by drought.
Vicarious—such as anxiety, fear and distress that can affect people when they learn about or perceive climate change risks or witness its harmful impacts on others.
Mental health and well-being outcomes
According to a report from the American Public Health Association, up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffer depression after a disaster.
PTSD is among the most common mental health outcomes of disasters such as hurricanes:
One in six people affected by Hurricane Katrina (2005) in Mississippi and Louisiana had PTSD symptoms.
About 15% of New York City residents affected by Hurricane Sandy (2012) had PTSD symptoms.
In Houston, a quarter of residents impacted by Hurricane Harvey (2017) had PTSD symptoms three months after the event.
PTSD rates among Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria (2017) were even higher—ranging from 44% to 66% among those displaced on the island and in Florida, respectively.
Climate Change Concerns in the U.S.
Approximately half of adults agree that climate change is already affecting Americans’ mental health (48%) and are anxious about its impact on future generations (51%).
70% of Americans report feeling at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, with 35% feeling “very worried.”
A recent survey of 10,000 youth across 10 countries found that 84% were at least moderately worried about climate change. In the U.S., surveyed youth reported feeling sad (57%), anxious (58%), and depressed (34%) about climate change.
Adaptation and mental health resilience
The latest IPCC reports (see Chapter 7.4.2) review preventative and post-event responses to reduce the mental health risks posed by climate change—including: improving access to mental health care; incorporating mental health in resilience planning; and training responders in mental health first aid.
The American Psychological Association’s guidance on promoting mental health resilience includes:
Individual resilience: strengthen social networks, foster optimism and hope, and boost personal preparedness.
Community resilience: address socioeconomic disparities, preserve cultural connections, and expand disaster response plans with community input.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, reach 24/7, free, and confidential support:
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Text MHA to 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained crisis counselor
on the Crisis Text Line, in English or Spanish
POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES
How is climate change affecting mental health and well-being in your area?
Consider not only acute impacts (from extreme events) but also gradual impacts (from slow-onset changes like sea-level rise) on mental health in your local area. NOAA’s State Climate Summaries review current and anticipated future climate impacts for each state. Many of these physical hazards have mental health and well-being outcomes, as described in the latest IPCC reports (see Chapter 7.2.5) and in a 2021 report from American Psychological Association.
Does your local area need post-disaster mental health resources, or have past experience with them?
FEMA maintains a searchable directory of active and past disaster declarations. The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP)’s FEMA-funded relief grants provide post-disaster mental health services to states, U.S. territories, and federally recognized tribes. Has your local area received CCP grants in recent years, and if so what were the outcomes?
Who is most vulnerable to climate-related mental health impacts? What is their experience?
Physical hazards interact with non-climatic factors (ranging from an individual’s personality and pre-existing illness to structural inequity and injustice) to create higher mental health risks in certain populations including: the economically disadvantaged; communities of color; Indigenous Peoples; children; older adults; women; people with disabilities; people with pre-existing mental health diagnoses; and outdoor workers.
What measures are (or are not) in place locally to mitigate mental health risk and build resilience?
The recent IPCC reports (see Chapter 7.4.2) review preventative and post-event responses to reduce the mental health risks posed by climate change. To learn whether any of these measures are in place locally, contact local resilience experts using the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit directory.
The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on climate change and mental health. Local therapists, emergency responders and nurses may also be useful interviews.
Heidi Honegger RogersDNP, FNP-C, APHN-BC (She/Her/Hers)
Director, UNM Health Sciences Center Interprofessional Education Program
Associate Professor, UNM College of Nursing
Related expertise: Climate change and public health