Assessing Mental Health Under The Threat Climate Change

Written by Maeve McKaig

Although humans have been aware of the threat of climate change for decades, it seems as though the immediate need for action is just now sinking in with the recent publishing of the United Nations report and the U.S. National Climate Assessment. Unfortunately, it is alarmingly too little, too late. Scientists have presented hard deadlines for the global population to act before severe consequences take effect. These reports, combined with natural disasters increasing in frequency and intensity, have made the once distant threat of climate change a hard reality. In addition to the physical effects of climate change, considering how this is affecting our mental health is imperative, especially for Americans living under a climate change-denying administration.

Human psychology has been shaped by climate change. In a March 2017 psychological study “Mental Health And Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, And Guidance,” psychologists found that “whether experienced indirectly or directly, stressors to our climate translate into impaired mental health that can result in depression and anxiety” (Clayton, S., Manning, C.M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M., 2017). Besides the acute psychological impacts of experiencing a climate-induced disaster,–including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression–the accumulation of compound stress related to climate change can get to an unmanageable level. Rising sea level and temperature changes are indicative of global climate change; however, It’s difficult to process a global issue in our everyday lives, especially when we are focused on the changing weather day-to-day. We hold ourselves at a distance. In the March 2017 report, psychologists described this phenomena as psychological distance. This psychological distance could be building off of our increasing physical distance from nature, as green spaces disappear from communities. The relationship between how humans interact with nature and the human psyche is explored in the field of ecopsychology, as explained in the book Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind.

In the study of ecopsychology, the environment is directly linked to the human psyche. That means that the severe impacts of climate change on the Earth mirror the impacts on human psychology. James Hillman, an American psychologist, writes that “the idea that depth psychology merges with ecology translates to mean that to understand the ills of the soul today we turn to the ills of the world, its suffering” (xxi). The idea that the human psyche is connected to the natural world isn’t as “out there” as it seems. Ecopsychology looks at the relationship between phenomena in the natural world. Lester R. Brown, an environmental analyst and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, wrote that “the major contribution ecopsychology promises to make to environmental politics is the identification of the irrational forces that tie people to their bad environmental habits.” For example, some psychologists believe that our increasingly obsessive consumption habits reflect addiction-driven impulses.

Unfortunately, when assessing mental health, the individual is often isolated from the environment, when in fact, environmental factors play a huge role in mental health. The stereotypical school of thought on the relationship between these two factors often dictates that human society is separate from, or even somehow above, the forces of nature. So much of industrialized culture is built on the idea that we are distinct from nature; we believe the land to be dead so humans can mutilate it. But by over exaggerating the internal, humans miss opportunities to solve the external problems that affect us as well. In order to deal with environmental trauma, we have to change the conversation about mental health.

Given this research, the connection between the environment and the human psyche must always be considered. Additionally, individuals can find sources of personal meaning in nature to sustain a relationship with the environment. This not only helps with anxiety or trauma surrounding climate change related issues, but also other mental health struggles as well. The main lesson of ecopsychology is that connections with nature will help preserve and maintain both the environment and our mental health. Communities can also build resiliency in the face of climate change by sustaining social networks to connect people. Believing in one’s own self-efficacy and supporting local communities is a way to fight the isolation that we may have within ourselves and/or from the natural disasters caused by climate change.

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