Mental Health And Our Changing Climate

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March 2017


Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance



Susan Clayton Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology College of Wooster
Christie Manning Visiting Assistant Professor,
Environmental Studies Macalester College
Kirra Krygsman Research Manager
Meighen Speiser Chief Engagement Officer

EDITORS AND CONTRIBUTORS Ashlee Cunsolo, PhD, Director, Labrador Institute of Memorial University
Victoria Derr, PhD, Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies, California State University, Monterey Bay
Thomas Doherty, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Paige Fery, Research Coordinator, ecoAmerica
Elizabeth Haase, MD, Chair, Climate Psychiatry Committee, Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry Associate Professor, University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine
John Kotcher, PhD, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University
Linda Silka, PhD, Psychologist, Senior Fellow, Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions
Lise Van Susteren, MD, Psychiatrist, Private Practice
Jennifer Tabola, Senior Director, Climate for Health, ecoAmerica

SPECIAL THANKS ecoAmerica is grateful to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for its generous support.
Suggested citation Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K.,
& Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington,
D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.

ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association thank the following reviewers who provided valuable feedback on drafts of this report: Daniel Dodgen (Department of Health and Human Services), Chandrakala Ganesh (California State University, East Bay), Caroline Hodge (University of Michigan MBA/MS Candidate 2018), Howard Kurtzman (American Psychological Association), Joshua Morganstein (Department of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences & Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress), Susan Schneider (University of the Pacific), Robert Ursano (Center Department of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences & Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress), Michael Wright (Licensed Social Worker, Author), and Michael Yogman (Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, American Academy of Pediatrics).

American Psychological Association | ecoAmerica









Our Changing Climate: A Primer


The Climate and Health Impacts on Humans


Linking Physical Impacts, Mental Health, and


Community Well-Being

Comprehending Climate Change


Climate Solutions Benefit Mental Health




Mental Health Impacts


Impacts on Individuals


Impacts on Community and Society


The Problem of Inequity




Building Resilience


Tips to Support Individuals


Tips to Support Communities


What Individuals Can Do


What Mental Health Professionals Can Do







Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance


When you think about climate change, mental health might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Americans are beginning to grow familiar with climate change and its health impacts: worsening asthma and allergies; heat-related stress; foodborne, waterborne, and vector-borne diseases; illness and injury related to storms; and floods and droughts. However, the connections with mental health are not often part of the discussion.
It is time to expand information and action on climate and health, including mental health. The health, economic, political, and environmental implications of climate change affect all of us. The tolls on our mental health are far reaching. They induce stress, depression, and anxiety; strain social and community relationships; and have been linked to increases in aggression, violence, and crime. Children and communities with few resources to deal with the impacts of climate change are those most impacted.
To compound the issue, the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are growing. These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency.
To help increase awareness of these challenges and to address them, the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica sponsored this report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. This is an updated and expanded version of our 2014 report, Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, which explored how climate change can impact mental health and provided guidance to engage the public. This updated report is intended to further inform and empower health and medical professionals, community and elected leaders, and the public. Our websites offer webinars and other resources to supplement this report.
On behalf of the authors, the many professionals who contributed directly and indirectly to this work, and all those involved in expanding awareness of and action on climate and mental health, thank you for taking the time to review and share this important resource. We invite your feedback, and as the field continues to grow, we’ll continue to update this work.

Howard S. Kurtzman, Ph.D. Acting Executive Director for Science American Psychological Association

Bob Perkowitz Founder & President ecoAmerica

American Psychological Association | ecoAmerica



A Clinical Psychologist’s Take on Climate Change

Thomas Doherty, PsyD

page 28

Climate change is a human-caused problem, which is more difficult to cope with than disasters that are beyond human control. Mental health professionals can help give people a sense of power over how they respond.

Inuit Mental Health and Climate Change

Ashlee Cunsolo, PhD

page 33

The Inuit are a prime example of communities that have experienced the mental distress and loss of cultural identity brought on by a changing landscape and environmental conditions.

Children’s Emotional Responses to Climate Change

Elizabeth Haase, MD

page 36

Direct experience with and future unknown effects of climate change can cause children to exhibit symptoms of PTSD, such as phobic behavior, panic, nightmares, and anxiety.

Resilience in the Face of Climate Change

Victoria Derr, PhD

page 41

Research with a diverse sample of youth students, age 11–15, in Boulder, Colorado, showed that youth views of resilience stem from complex social and environmental supports.

Finding a Place for Psychology in Climate

Change Deliberations

Linda Silka, PhD

page 47

New England is an example of vital infrastructure that is at risk from rising sea levels and of opportunities for psychologists to work with professionals in various fields to prepare for the effects.

Our Moral Obligation: The Duty to Warn and Act

Lise Van Susteren, MD

page 57

Growing numbers of climate Cassandras are being debilitated by anxiety about future harm to the planet. Where is the collective health effort to address this issue? The time is now for mental health professionals to act.

Throughout the report are six essays from mental health professionals that dive into particular topics of expertise on mental health and climate change.


Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance


Thus far, most research and communications on the impacts of climate change have emphasized the physical health effects, while mental health has been secondary. Building upon Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, the goal of this updated report is to increase awareness of the psychological impacts of climate change on human mental health and well-being. The report provides climate communicators, planners, policymakers, public health professionals, and other leaders the tools and tips needed to respond to these impacts and bolster public engagement on climate solutions.
The impacts of climate change on people’s physical, mental, and community health arise directly and indirectly. Some human health effects stem directly from natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, like floods, storms, wildfires, and heatwaves. Other effects surface more gradually from changing temperatures and rising sea levels that cause forced migration. Weakened infrastructure and less secure food systems are examples of indirect climate impacts on society’s physical and mental health.
Some communities and populations are more vulnerable to the health-related impacts of climate change. Factors that may increase sensitivity to the mental health impacts include geographic location, presence of pre-existing disabilities or chronic illnesses, and socioeconomic and demographic inequalities, such as education level, income, and age. In particular, stress from climate impacts can cause children to experience changes in behavior, development, memory, executive function, decision-making, and scholastic achievement.
The connection between changes in the climate and impacts on a person can be difficult to grasp. Although people’s understanding and knowledge of climate change can increase by experiencing the effects directly, perception, politics, and uncertainty can complicate this link. Psychological factors (like psychological distance), a political divide, uncertainty, helplessness, and denial influence the way people comprehend information and form their beliefs on climate change. Research on the impacts of climate change on human well-being is particularly important given the relationship among understanding, experiencing, and comprehending climate change. People’s willingness to support and engage in climate solutions is likely to increase if they can relate them to local experiences or if they see the relevance to their own health and well-being. Additionally, individuals who have higher perceived environmental self-efficacy, or the sense of being able to positively contribute, are more motivated to act on climate solutions (Sawitri, Hadiyanto, & Hadi, 2015).

American Psychological Association | ecoAmerica


Climate solutions are available now, are widespread, and support psychological health. Increasing adoption of active commuting, public transportation, green spaces, and clean energy are all solutions that people can choose to support and integrate into their daily lives. These climate solutions, among others, can help to curb the stress, anxiety, and other mental illnesses incurred from the decline of economies, infrastructure, and social identity that comes from damage to the climate.
Major acute mental health impacts include increases in trauma and shock, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compounded stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression. Climate change– induced extreme weather, changing weather patterns, damaged food and water resources, and polluted air impact human mental health. Increased levels of stress and distress from these factors can also put strains on social relationships and even have impacts on physical health, such as memory loss, sleep disorders, immune suppression, and changes in digestion.
Major chronic mental health impacts include higher rates of aggression and violence, more mental health emergencies, an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism, and intense feelings of loss. These feelings of loss may be due to profound changes in a personally important place (such as one’s home) and/ or a sense that one has lost control over events in one’s life due to disturbances from climate change. Additionally, a sense of loss regarding one’s personal or occupational identity can arise when treasured objects are destroyed by a disaster or place-based occupations are disrupted by climate change.
Personal relationships and the ways in which people interact in communities and with each other are affected by a changing climate. Compounded stress from a changing environment, ecomigration, and/or ecoanxiety can affect community mental well-being

through the loss of social identity and cohesion, hostility, violence, and interpersonal and intergroup aggression.
Psychological well-being includes positive emotions, a sense of meaning and purpose, and strong social connections. Although the psychological impacts of climate change may not be obvious, they are no less serious because they can lead to disorders, such as depression, antisocial behavior, and suicide. Therefore, these disorders must be considered impacts of climate change as are disease, hunger, and other physical health consequences.
Building resilience is essential to address the physical and mental health impacts of climate change. Many local governments within the United States and in other countries have created plans to protect and enhance infrastructure, but these plans tend to overlook the support needed to ensure thriving psychological well-being. There is an opportunity to include the resilience capacity of individuals and communities in the development of preparedness plans.
This report concludes with four sets of recommendations designed to help readers put these research findings into action.
Tips to support individuals. This section provides strategies for practitioners, policymakers, and communicators to build personal attributes and social support that will help to prepare for and recover from climate change–related mental trauma. The following are a few of the top recommendations:
1. Build belief in one’s own resilience. 2. Foster optimism. 3. Cultivate active coping and
self-regulation skills. 4. Maintain practices that help to
provide a sense of meaning. 5. Promote connectedness to family,
place, culture, and community.


Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance

Tips to support communities. This section is for people, organizations, and mental and public health professionals who are at the forefront of and/or are interested in strengthening communities’ responses to acute events and confronting gradual changes in the climate, in order to alleviate adverse mental health outcomes. The following are several of the topline recommended strategies for protecting well-being and alleviating adverse mental health outcomes:
1. Assess and expand community mental health infrastructure.
2. Reduce disparities and pay attention to populations of concern.
3. Engage and train community members on how to respond.
4. Ensure distribution of resources and augment with external supplies.
5. Have clear and frequent climate–mental health communication.
What individuals can do. At home and in the community, people can take actions in their everyday lives to buffer against some of the projected impacts, and these actions can also provide a greater sense of individual security and control. The following are several of the topline actions individuals can take:
1. Make and practice household emergency plans. 2. Participate in mindset training to prepare for
adversity and adaptation through increased awareness of our emotions. 3. Care for oneself through healthy habits. 4. Connect with family, friends, neighbors, and other groups to build strong social networks.
What mental health and other professional leaders can do. Health professionals and fellow leaders are uniquely positioned to foster new levels of support for climate solutions. Considered the nation’s most highly trusted and accessible messengers, health professionals reach a breadth and diversity of Americans. The following are several of the topline opportunities for health leaders:
1. Become a mental health–related climate-literate professional.
2. Engage fellow public and mental health professionals. 3. Be vocal, model leaders within your communities. 4. Support national and international climate–mental
health solutions.



Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance


Our climate is changing at an accelerated rate and continues to have profound impacts on human health. This change jeopardizes not only physical health but also mental health. This section provides a primer on the geophysical impacts of climate change.a
a. For more information on climate change, the causes, and the role of human activity, view the National Climate Assessment report

From wildfires and drought in California to severe flooding in Maryland to Alaskan communities threatened by rising seas, we are clearly living through some of the most severe weather events in U.S. history as a result of damage to our climate. These impacts on our environment will, in turn, affect human health and community well-being (Melillo, Richmond, & Yohe, 2014).
Climate change is creating visible impacts worldwide, including many here in America. As seen in the tripling of heat waves between 2011 and 2012, weather patterns introduce lasting impacts, such as food insecurity (Duffy & Tebaldi, 2012; Hatfield et al., 2014). Similarly, rising sea-surface temperatures have been connected to increasing rates of disease for marine life and humans (Doney et al., 2014). Sea levels are estimated to increase anywhere from 8 inches to 6.6 feet due to warmer temperatures by 2100, putting 8 million Americans living in coastal areas at risk for flooding (Parris et al., 2012). In terms of our economy, Hurricane Sandy cost the United States around $68 billion in total (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2016). Droughts caused by increases in temperature and changing weather patterns cost California $2.7 billion in 2015 and Texas $7.62 billion in 2011 (Howitt, MacEwan, Medellín-Azuara, Lund, & Sumner, 2015; Guerrero, 2011). As these climate disturbances become more dramatic and persistent, we must prepare for these climate conditions.
Our communities’ health, infrastructure, and economy are directly connected to our climate (Krygsman, Speiser, Wood, & Barry, 2016). As temperatures increase, we experience higher levels of pollution, allergens, and diseases (Krygsman, Speiser, Merse, Marx, & Tabola, 2016). Severe weather events threaten our businesses and vulnerable communities. Pollution and drought undermine our food and water supplies, and the latter increases the prevalence of wildfires that can destroy homes and communities (Ziska et al., 2016). Although all Americans are affected, certain populations of concern will feel the impacts more severely (U.S. Global Change Research Program [USGCRP], 2016). Together, communities can build resilience to a changing climate.
As severe weather events, poorer air quality, degraded food and water systems, and physical illnesses increase, the direct and indirect impacts on health must be understood (USGCRP, 2016). The next section highlights the physical health impacts of climate change, and the following sections delve deeper into the mental health impacts, and what can be done to protect human well-being.

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Mental Health And Our Changing Climate