Wellbeing and Climate Change
The mental health impacts of climate change may be sudden due to experiencing a weather disaster or gradual and cumulative. The connection between climate change and mental health may not always be clear, even to those who are affected. Each person will react to climate change differently based on a variety of factors such as where they live, occupation, and previous significant interactions with disasters and their environment.
How do disasters impact wellbeing?
Negative mental health outcomes of disasters are not only attributable to exposure to the initial event. Many people who experience a disaster struggle with longer-term consequences, including displacement (temporary or long-term), unstable or unknown housing circumstances, lack of access to support services, and loss of employment and possessions.
Most people who experience disasters are resilient, and basic support after an event will be sufficient to prevent negative mental health outcomes. However, stress, anxiety, or fear that lasts for several weeks or impacts an individual’s daily activities and quality of life may indicate that additional mental health resources and support are necessary.
Sense of Place
Climate is fundamental to our understanding of place. Places with changing seasons provide a signal for certain recreation and economic activities, such as the beginning and end of the ice fishing season, planting and harvesting times, and tourism to ski areas. Our attachment to places—the environments, traditions, and customs tied to these places—are very deep and part of our identity. Attachment to place is what makes environmental changes and natural disasters particularly distressing.
As climate change impacts traditional landscapes, communities, and places we call home, larger numbers of people are likely to experience the type of stress and negative emotions from a psychological phenomenon called ‘Solastalgia.’ Solastalgia is a newer concept developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally-induced distress and is characterized by a sense of distress or emotional pain felt when the place of solace (or homeland) is diminished or destroyed.
Climate change can contribute to several sources of loss that may include:
- Loss of habitat for native plants and wildlife
- Water shortage and drought
- Loss of livelihood for those who have a career dependent on stable and expected climate conditions
- Loss of property, pets, or possessions due to a disaster
- Loss of place due to forced migration or displacement due to a disaster or loss of job
All of these losses can cause stress, sadness, anxiety, or depression amongst individuals or populations that are impacted.
Climate anxiety is the distress caused by witnessing subtle and sometimes dramatic and irreversible changes to our environment. This kind of anxiety can be triggered by personally experiencing environmental disasters, like floods, or by exposure to the news and social media. Climate anxiety may look like feelings of worry, grief, isolation, and hopelessness, and if left unmanaged may grow to more severe mood disorders, such as depression. Some additional negative mental wellbeing outcomes from climate changes include the following:
- Relationship Strain: Climate change has the potential to impact how individuals interact with each other and within their communities, resulting in a disrupted sense of belonging, increased violence and crime, and increased aggression and domestic abuse.
- Substance Abuse: Climate change can increase overall stress levels, which can lead to increases in high-risk coping behaviors, such as substance abuse.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Wellbeing impacts of climate change, especially from extreme weather events, can lead to serious mental health consequences, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
- Youth: Youth are at an increased risk for distress and anxiety in the aftermath of an extreme event.
- Women: Women have a higher prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders after disasters than men.
- Elderly: Elderly tend to have higher rates of untreated depression and physical ailments that contribute to their overall vulnerability.
- Communities of Color, Immigrants, Limited English: Socioeconomic and educational factors, limited transportation, limited access to health education, and social isolation related to language may inhibit people's ability to prepare for and respond to climate related disasters.
- Homeless: A combination of risk factors make people who are experiencing homelessness more at risk to the negative impacts of climate change.
- Occupational Exposure: Healthcare and public safety workers are at an increased risk for short-term and long-term mental health consequences.
- LGBTQ+: Societal stigmitization, harassment, and abuse place this community at greater risk to the effects of climate change.
Climate Change and Wellbeing Resources
Resources for Public Health Professionals
The MN Climate & Health Program developed a training module for public health professionals in 2017 including a webinar, slides, and summary sheet. The training module covers the observed climate changes in Minnesota, the public health issues related to climate change and wellbeing, and public health strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change to reduce the health impacts. The training module can be used as general education or as a "train the trainer" tool for local public health professionals.
- Health, Climate Change, Wellbeing Webinar (YouTube)
- Health, Climate Change, Wellbeing Training Slides (PPT)
- Health, Climate Change, Wellbeing Summary (PDF)
Resources for Health Care Professionals
Health care professionals can support patients by staying informed on climate change and discussing their patients’ climate-related concerns. Patients suffering climate-related mental health impacts need to see that their health providers understand and validate their distress. Health professionals can share information on climate change, its causes, and their personal or health institution’s experience of limiting their carbon footprint. A list of organizations dedicated to advancing climate knowledge for health professionals can be found at the end of this webpage.
Efforts are being made to produce therapeutic programming to address the collective grief associated with climate change. The Good Grief Network may be useful for Minnesota communities to address despair and promote individual and group resiliency.
Centering group psychotherapy around climate change topics can be a way for professionals to address specific concerns. The American Psychological Association addresses mental health and climate change and provides useful approaches in their published document Mental Health and our Changing Climate (PDF).
Additionally, the Environmental Distress Scale may be a useful tool in evaluating mental health issues in a patient population.
Resources for Parents/Caregivers
Youth are increasingly reporting climate anxiety, and interventions are needed to foster resiliency. Parents and caregivers uniquely impact how children think about climate change and can influence feelings of powerlessness in the face of the climate crisis. The MN Climate & Health Program created the following resource in 2021: Responding to Youth Emotional Distress due to Climate Change: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers (PDF).
Resources for Educators
Learning about our climate is an important part of understanding our place in the world, and educators can support students, especially youth, in acknowledging and responding to the intense feelings they may have when hearing about climate change. Consider the following strategies:
- Help students understand the links between actions and impacts on ecosystems and environmental resources.
- Ask students how climate change and related natural disasters make them feel.
- Take time to address feelings and help students find healthy, proactive ways to reduce negative thoughts and gain a sense of control.
For more information about support for educators, curriculum plans and efforts to mobilize future generations for a healthier Minnesota, visit the following:
- Behavioral Health and Emergency Preparedness, Minnesota Department of Health Office of Emergency Preparedness
- Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series, SAMHSA
- Mental Health and Our Changing Climate (PDF), ecoAmerica
- Mental Health Promotion, Minnesota Department of Health
- Mental Wellbeing and Resilience Learning Community, Minnesota Department of Health
- Mental Wellness and Resilience, American Public Health Association
Organizations dedicated to advancing climate knowledge for health care professionals:
- Nurses Drawdown
- Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments
- Climate Psychiatry Alliance
- American College of Physicians: Climate Change Toolkit
- Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate: Climate change is a health emergency
- Lancet Countdown: Tracking the connection between public health and climate change
- National Indian Health Board: Climate Ready Tribes