Content warning: mentions of suicide
As UC Berkeley students, we are often faced with many stressors and obstacles that we have to deal with every day. Arguably the most significant threat to this planet today is climate change, defined as fluctuations in temperature and weather that occur over time. In particular, the effects of climate change may be exacerbated due to the burning of fossil fuels and the increase in greenhouse gas or GHG emissions in the atmosphere. In the last four decades, the occurrence of extreme weather events, or EWEs, has doubled around the world.
Specifically, global warming and EWEs can pose great damage to the mental health of survivors, leading to mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Due to EWEs, physical environments can become uninhabitable and poor thermoregulation can contribute to heat-related cognitive impairment and psychosocial stress.
The losses and trauma one may experience after a disaster, such as displacement of households or unemployment, can contribute to detrimental mental health outcomes. As of this writing, Floridians are recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Venezuelans are processing the dozens of deaths that resulted from a rain-triggered landslide that hit Las Tejerías in October.
Clearly, the loss of homes, lives, and jobs can irrevocably result in a decline in mental well-being, and this symptom burden can gradually increase over time. Even if an individual has not been personally affected by a climate-related disaster, many build up ecological anxiety, which is anxiety that results from worrying about how climate change might affect their future.
The most vulnerable populations are disadvantaged minority groups, such as low-income people of color and the homeless. Additionally, refugees and immigrants who have resettled in new places where EWEs have occurred may be re-traumatized by being displaced from their homes again.
Climate change “hotspots” are places where there are many ecological and physical effects of climate change. Those residing in or near these hotspots are at higher risk of experiencing climate-related disasters. This poses a major threat to mental health because underserved communities in these hotspots may not have the resources to adapt to such harsh environments and may experience secondary displacement.
In addition to the fact that climate disasters can damage human health and lead to unfortunate fatalities, climate change can have long-term detrimental effects on mental health. These mental health problems can be the result of food insecurity, the death of loved ones, population migration, and the financial instability of unemployment. Especially due to global warming and rising GHG concentrations, this accumulated heat can overwhelm thyroid hormones and lead to lower moods, more aggressive behavior, and higher rates of suicidal ideation.
Therefore, it is imperative that the severe impacts of the climate crisis are addressed. There is an undeniable impact the climate crisis has on everyone, especially marginalized communities in “hotspots” and young people, like college students, who will live on the planet we plan to preserve today.
When we want to achieve climate justice, we must also remember that this climate crisis is a mental health crisis that requires more action at the local, state, and federal levels. Although there is not a great deal of research on climate change and mental health, several current studies emphasize what we can do as individuals and what psychiatry and health care systems can achieve.
On an individual level, communities, especially hotspots, should be educated about emergency disaster preparedness, climate change, and resources that can be used before, during, and after EWEs. In addition, we must actively strive to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible and support sustainability initiatives that combat climate change.
Within academic psychiatry departments, faculty should be mandated to discuss the relationship between mental health and climate change to spread awareness that these unlikely problems are potentially related. Scientific studies should be supported to further advance research on mental well-being and the impacts of climate change so that we can begin to learn more about what the connections are between mental health and climate change.
Furthermore, within health systems, policies must be instituted to minimize the carbon footprint. This can take the form of reducing fossil fuel consumption, moving away from fast fashion and excessive food waste, or incentivizing the use of more public transport or electric vehicles.
As UC Berkeley students, much can be done to take action to combat the mental health effects of climate change. For example, through the Student Environmental Resource Center, we can take sustainability courses to better educate ourselves or join environmental organizations, like the Students of Color Environmental Collective, to organize climate justice initiatives. Additionally, when faced with ecological anxiety, we can use campus mental health resources, such as Berkeley’s student-to-student peer counseling, to preserve and protect our well-being.
However, much remains to be done to improve the effects of climate change and mental health. In a nutshell, this is a pressing matter that needs to be considered now. As they say “there is no Planet B”, we must stop being spectators and act now. We must make our future an environmentally sustainable one to live in and one with less ecological anxiety for those disproportionately affected.