How will climate change affect our mental health?

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A few weeks ago, on my bus ride home from work, I sat beside a man who had recently moved from India to Winnipeg with his family. He told me he had never experienced a typical Canadian winter—with the crisp snow, the cold chill and the slick ice.    

While he and his daughter were excited at the first snowfall of the season, he admitted that the winter had started to affect him, emotionally. He missed his hometown and despite his happiness to begin a new life in Winnipeg, he was also dealing with a reoccurring sadness. He cited the short duration of sunlight in the day as the most egregious source of his depression.

I won't speculate on his mental health, but humans' physical and emotional wellbeing has always been subject to the influence of climate. There is no doubt that no matter where we choose to live in the world, the weather will leave its impression on us.

Recent scientific studies have proven climate change will have a significant effect on the social, economic and physical systems. As I mentioned in a previous article, the United Nations Governmental Panel on Climate Change—a collection of leading climate scientists—released a report in October 2018, warning that if the world’s global temperature exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next 12 years, the weather will significantly worsen. The rise in temperature will increase the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The disruption of these systems from climate change is likely to intensify common risk factors associated with mental health disorders, affecting children, seniors, the chronically ill, pregnant women and postpartum women, the urban poor, migrants and the homeless the most.  

Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of this as health issues rose four per cent in New Orleans after the natural disaster. An assessment carried out by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that many low-income families and black residents who returned to New Orleans after the hurricane showed signs of an increased need for mental health treatment. Families living in Federal Emergency Management Agency-subsidized hotels or trailers actively exhibited heightened rates of disability among caregivers of children as a result of depression, anxiety, drug abuse and physical illness.  

A cross-sectional survey of low-income young adults and parents of small children found that over half of them continued to experience heightened levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, trouble sleeping and distressing worries a year after the hurricane. The results of these assessments show that individuals who experienced more stressors, loss and property damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina were more susceptible to long-term physical and mental health-related issues.  

In the aftermath of climate-related disasters, we can anticipate a high demand for mental health treatment services. However, with more erratic and extreme weather, we can also predict a potential decrease in the availability or accessibility of these services. So, the question that should concern us all is: how will policymakers, NGOs and designers respond to and prevent these threats to the environment and human mental health?  

Throughout history, human activity has altered our landscapes and climate. The abrupt ending of the last ice age marked the birth of the modern climate era and the start of human civilization. NASA reports that the planet’s average temperature has risen about 0.9 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century due to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. We already know that temperatures cannot rise any more as it will intensify the risks to human physical health, acting as a catalyst for social conflict and resulting in forced migration. Yet, some communities have already experienced disruption of their livelihood and associated grief in the face of ecological losses. In Canada, studies reveal that the impacts of climate change on the mental wellbeing of people, specifically in the North, including the Inuit whose landscapes are rapidly changing and have resulted in eco-anxiety, ecological grief and solastalgia. Solastalgia—a word invented by Australian philosopher Glen A. Albrecht—is a “feeling of homesickness when you are at home.”

For decades, northern First Nation communities have had a strong relationship with their natural environment and the land and sea have served as primary sources of nutrition, livelihood and culture for communities spread along Canada’s northern coastline and core. However, in recent times, these communities have observed profound environmental changes in their communities as a result of climate change. Inhabitants have reported feelings of loss of sense of place and sadness due to changes in the land, worrying about what the future will have in store for them and their children and how these changes will define their way of life.

Characteristic to most remote northern aboriginal communities also, is an increasingly young population and a lack of access to proper health services, low average socioeconomic status, congestion and poor-quality housing. The lack of basic amenities that improve the quality of life of members of these communities coupled with constant changes in natural environment contribute to an increase in climate-related changes in both physical and mental health of inhabitants. Evacuation and migration due to extreme weather events such as flooding and wildfires are more prevalent due to climate change and create conditions for a sense of loss that compromises mental wellbeing. 

The correlation between climate change and mental health is a poignant discussion. It’s much more extensive and complex than a lack of Vitamin D. Its evidence that highlights the potential disaster that climate change can inflict on our emotional wellbeing, which no sad lamp or healing crystal can rectify by itself.  It’s uncertain to say if the long-term effects of climate change on society’s mental wellbeing will be dire or if human beings will merely adapt technologically and psychologically to warmer climates to minimize the impact of warming on mental health. Whatever the case, it would be wiser for designers, policy makers and NGOs to increase efforts that raise mental awareness and find solutions to improve the mental wellbeing of communities globally. I will be discussing possible design solutions in my next article.

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