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Climate Changes Causing Mental Illness

February 9, 2009

Last year, a 17-year-old boy was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne because he was convinced that if he drank, millions of people would die.

According to the Boston Globe, Australian doctors wrote the case up as the first known instance of “climate change delusion,” because he was refusing to drink water due to the growing concern of climate change.

The psychiatrist who runs the inpatient unit where the boy was treated, Robert Salo, has now seen several more patients with psychosis or anxiety disorders focused on climate change, as well as children who are having nightmares about global-warming related natural disasters.

These sorts of anxiety over current events is not a new issue.  The worries of contemporary threats, such as nuclear wars or AIDS, have historically been woven into the mental illness of each generation.  However, global warming could have broader and deeper effects on mental health, even if indirectly.

“Climate change could have a real impact on our psyches,” says Paul Epstein, the associate director for the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

The average global temperature is expected to rise between 1 degrees and 6 degrees Celsius over this century.  According to scientists’ predictions, glaciers will melt, seas will rise, extremes in precipitation will occur.

Evidence exist of these extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, cyclones, and hurricanes, which leads to emotional distress and can trigger things like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

After Hurricane Katrina, problems like severe mental illness rose, including depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and a variety of phobias.  These rates went from 6.1 percent to 11.3 percent, among those who lived in affected regions, a 2006 study by the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group said.

The rates of mild-to-moderate mental illness also double, going from 9.7 percent to 19.9 percent.

“After a disaster, people can feel inadequate, like outside forces are taking control of their lives,” said Joshua Miller, a professor at the Smith College School for Social Work who responds to disasters worldwide. “They can’t see a positive future. They tend to lose hope or become depressed.”

Miller said that severe disasters also destroy the infrastructure needed to provide mental health care, and forcibly displace people, severing social connections when people need them most.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2050, climate change is expected to create about 200 million environmental refugees.

Although predictions can be made on weather and environmental changes, they cannot be made on mental illness related to the climate change issue.

However, specialists do say that the indirect effects of global warming, such as mental illness, could be substantial.

They also say that most of the anxiety centers on the possibility of extreme weather events – global warming will also transform the natural environment in a more gradual way.  These changes might have their own effect on mental health.

“It’s not all trauma,” said Carol North, a psychiatrist who runs the trauma and disaster program at the Dallas VA Medical Center. “Some of it’s a quiet decline of quality of life.”

Climate change may eventually deplete natural resources, making it more difficult for people to live off the land, and disrupt the global food supply.

“That will mean declining socioeconomic status and quality of life across the world,” North said, and “depression, demoralization, disillusionment.”

Researchers have noted an uptick in suicides among farmers in India and Australia, where severe droughts have already taken a toll on agriculture.

In other parts of the world, the changing Arctic climate is expected to make hunting and fishing far more difficult for the people who live there.  The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment says that these changes threaten Inuit culture, and increases domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide may result.

The director of the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Australia’s Murdoch University, Glenn Albrecht, examined the psychological distress people experience in the midst of this kind of slow, but chronic, change in their environments.  The work he has done with Australian communities living in areas changed by strip mining or drought, revealed that people felt disconnected from nature, no longer able to find solace in it, as well as feeling helpless.

“Climate change is a massive driver of change in people’s home environment,” Albrecht said. “These changes become sources of chronic stress.”

Albrecht, along with his colleagues, developed and verified an Environmental Distress Scale, designed to identify stresses related to the degradation of external environments.

“We tend to consider ourselves highly mobile global citizens, but we have a very profound connection to our environment,” Albrecht says. “We tend to take that for granted.”

We need to train people to administer “psychological first aid,” Smith’s Miller said. That means making sure people feel safe after a natural disaster, and educating them about the kinds of psychological responses they might experience.

Epstein and other specialist said that we may also derive some psychological benefit from banding together with other citizens to mitigate the effects of global warming.  They added, saying that taking action might not only give us back our own sense of efficacy against a powerful outside force, but also help us build community and social ties that offset stress.

“Getting involved can be an antidote to the depression that can come from the overwhelming realizations that we have to face . . . ,” Epstein said. “It can be empowering to realize that what you do is effective.”

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