Grant H. Brenner, Jokulsarlon, Iceland

How to Ignore Climate Change

Disturbing research on how meteorological changes are hurting our mindbrains

How do weather factors affect our health?

Numerous studies have provided evidence that climate change is associated with poor mental and emotional well-being. Many of these studies have been smaller scale or focused on specific populations. That is, until now.

New research on mental health and climate change.

To look at the question of the effects of climate change on population mental health, researchers looked at a database of 2 million US residents between the years of 2002 and 2012, using data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System. People answered the question, “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” This one question was chosen by the CDC because it has been shown to be a simple, reliable indicator of mental health with statistical validity comparable to other accepted measures.

  • Do recent meteorological stressors affect mental health?
  • Are more vulnerable groups affected more severely by meteorological stressors?
  • Does longer-term warming adversely affect mental health over a span of years?
  • Does direct impact from tropical storms worsen mental health?

How climate change affects mental illness rates for 2 million people.

They found that all three climate change experiences — the immediate effects of weather, warming over several years, and tropical storm exposure — significantly worsened mental health. They found that shifts in average monthly temperatures from 25 to 30 degrees centigrade to over 30 degrees worsened mental health in a dose-dependent manner. For each degree of average temperature increase, mental health worsened by a 2 percent increase in the rate of reported mental health issues. They found that in acute cyclone disaster zones, using Hurricane Katrina data, rates of mental health difficulties were 4 percent higher than in unaffected areas. For short-term weather changes, both increased heat and increased rain worsened mental health in a dose-dependent relationship. Based on the short-term effects of warmer and more rainy months alone, extending their findings to the whole US population translates into nearly 2 million extra people with mental health difficulties in any given month when the weather is worse. We all know how tough it can be to struggle through a heat-wave, or a period of prolong bad weather — these numbers tell the story of our personal experiences writ large.

The chilling implications for spiraling mental illness with unchecked climate change.

These are disturbing findings, and would, for any rational creatures, be a wake-up call. The number of people expected to have significantly worsening mental health, when extended to the population of the US, let alone the world, means millions and millions more people with increase suffering, physical health problems, and impairment in function. Our current mental health systems are already grossly inadequate to meet the current demand for care, as rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and other illnesses continue to rise, and healthcare costs along with them. And these numbers are for a relatively well-resourced, first-world country. Climate change may have more profound effects in regions already under great strain, close to the tipping point.

The future is uncertain.

Moreover, if we don’t get ahead of the mental health impact of climate change and do something about it, we are likely to get caught off guard and have difficulty responding effectively, compounding the problem further. As with many other anxiety-provoking issues for which there is no clear, good solution, we tend to use denial and avoidance to manage our emotional states, at our own peril.

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer

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Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer