A Perfect Storm: Climate Change and Mental Health
To those living in Florida, or other coastal areas, the connection between natural disasters and mental health is probably clear.
But, perhaps not so obvious is connecting mental health with climate change. This is what a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) aimed to do by analyzing daily meteorological data and cross-referencing it with “reported mental health difficulties drawn from nearly 2 million randomly sampled US residents between 2002 and 2012.”
What the researchers found was that increases in temperature and extreme weather events like hurricanes correlated with higher incidences of stress and depression.
A United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released at the same time warns that global warming increases the risk of heatwaves and heavy rainfall events. The UN’s findings reaffirm the need for more studies like the one published in PNAS.
“It is crucial to continue studying this phenomenon in order to better understand our specific vulnerabilities and the impact of climate change on our mental health,” says Dr. Vanessa Padilla, a psychiatrist with the University of Miami Health System.
It’s getting hot in here.
Another study, published in Nature earlier this year, analyzed tweets and monthly temperatures. The findings suggested that hotter weather corresponded to negative patterns in language.
“Environmental changes can definitely have an impact on the expression of our psychological well-being,” says Dr. Padilla. “Just imagine when people complain if a room is “too cold” or “too hot.” Feeling uncomfortable in a specific setting may trigger anger, irritability, frustration, and willingness to “escape or leave” the room; but how do we escape from a warmer planet?”
The link between mental health and hurricanes has been much better documented especially in recent years.
Large natural disasters like Katrina, Harvey, and Maria had an undeniable impact on communities. According to government reports, suicide rates spiked in the aftermath of both Katrina and Maria. And, the University of Texas School of Public Health found that more than four months after Hurricane Harvey a startling 18 percent of Harris County residents still reported levels of serious psychological distress. My aunt who lost her home to Hurricane Harvey and had to be rescued by boat told me that she had nightmares for months after.
Unfortunately, this will likely be the case with the two most recent natural hurricane disasters — Florence in North Carolina last month and Michael in the Florida Panhandle just this week.
“Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and now Michael are very recent examples of the possible psychological sequelae (or aftereffects of a condition) for those affected: fear, loss, anxiety, depression, as well as a risk of increased suicide rates,” says Dr. Padilla.
The uncertainty of a storm’s arrival and aftermath, the changes in our daily routines, potential power outages and lack of water, food, shelter, as well as a possible disruption with our job and financial stability are only some of the struggles faced by vulnerable individuals after extreme weather devastation.
“These events can be traumatic experiences leading to signs of hopelessness, helplessness, numbness, anxiety, and uncertainty which may lead to the development or exacerbation of mental illness. Moreover, losing a loved one during a natural disaster can negatively impact our mental health leading to complicated grief,” she says.
Despite feeling otherwise, you are not helpless.
There are things you can do like mentally preparing yourself and your loved ones before a natural disaster, and being mindful of the links between weather and emotional well-being.
Dr. Padilla also suggests getting involved with relief efforts or taking action to help protect the Earth, which will have the added effect of making you feel empowered.
As a Puerto Rican living in Florida, she says she recognizes how Hurricane Maria directly impacted the island. After losing communication with her own family for 11 days, she joined local groups that were coordinating private planes to transport medications to the island, and providing mental health resources to those arriving in Florida.
Dr. Padilla encourages anyone whose mental health is affected by the consequences of a natural disaster, to seek treatment. Also, “if climate change concerns you, reach out to your local government representatives and support eco-friendly businesses, says Dr. Padilla. “Each of us can make a difference.”
For emergencies, you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK .
Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. Her writing has also been featured on the Huffington Post and Scary Mommy websites.