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Updated Report & Webinar Open Dialogue on Climate Change and Mental Health

By Miranda Spencer
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On March 29, ecoAmerica, Climate for Health, and the American Psychological Association released a new report, "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance." Building on the lessons of “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change,” the study details the latest peer-reviewed research findings on the acute and chronic psychological impacts of climate change on individuals, families, and society; how these psychological impacts interact with physical health; and how best to prepare for and recover from those effects by building personal and community resilience.

The same day, we debuted a free, one-hour webinar summarizing the report’s key points and providing a Q&A session with the webinar’s hosts: study co-author Susan Clayton, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at The College of Wooster; Howard Kurtzman, Ph.D., the American Psychological Association’s acting executive director for science; Meighen Speiser, ecoAmerica’s chief engagement officer; and Jennifer Tabola, Climate for Health’s senior director.

Key Insights

The first part of the webinar provided an overview of the study’s methods and findings. Among the top insights:

  • Mental health impacts of climate change come from both changes in climate itself and the effects of rising temperatures.
  • These effects can be sudden and dramatic, such as natural disasters and extreme heat. Hurricane Katrina, for example, resulted in many cases of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Heat waves are associated with aggression and even violence. The need to relocate from areas so affected can also fracture family and community ties, which are important to mental and physical health.
  • More gradual, less obvious climate effects, such as sea level rise and drought, affect our familiar surroundings and alter our lifestyles, jobs, and diets, causing a sense of loss of control that can breed depression and anxiety.
  • New mothers, children, the elderly, and members of disadvantaged and indigenous communities are likely to suffer disproportionately from these impacts.

The second part of the webinar focused on constructive solutions, emphasizing that the same sustainability initiatives that benefit climate and physical health--such as bicycle commuting and shoring up the human connections that help us bounce back from stress and emergencies--also boost our mental health. Key take-homes included tips especially for mental health professionals, which are targeted at prevention:

  • Become climate–mental health literate. Besides reading the Mental Health and Our Changing Climate report itself, one can refer to numerous articles resources listed at the end
  • Engage fellow public and mental health professionals, inviting them to join you in doing something about climate change and mobilizing your professional associations for greater impact
  • Become a vocal leader, acting as a role model within your community and educating the public and elected leaders about climate and mental health
  • Support national and international climate–mental health solutions by joining campaigns, through your research, and by reaching out through public forums

Finally, a Q&A period gave listeners a chance to ask questions of the webinar’s leaders. They included the following, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Dr. Kurtzman, are you hearing from American Psychological Association members who are encountering more climate-related mental health issues with their patients in clinical practice?

A: Anecdotally, my colleagues and I have heard of such cases, and we are beginning to understand that climate change may be a factor that was not fully appreciated in the past and that we certainly have to be concerned about in the future.

Q: As a follow-up, has the APA taken a position in support of climate change action, and has it committed resources to pre-professional and in-service training on the topic?

A: APA does have a formal policy resolution about climate change and its impacts on health, and we have called on the psychology community to encourage more continuing education courses on it and to help people learn more about research in this area at our conventions.

Q: Dr. Clayton, Are there specific mental health impacts related to others’ denial of climate science, and any methods for reducing them?

A: We don’t know yet, because people are only just beginning to think about these types of diffuse impacts of climate change. I think it’s part of the problem that we don’t face up to the issue and acknowledge it. It’s like the child with the monster under the bed: if you don’t look at and accept what’s happening, it’s even scarier. Denial makes it hard for people to talk about it and makes it seem more unpredictable and less within our control.

Q: Is there a healthy way to engage with people who deny climate change, or is it better for our mental health to avoid those discussions?

A: (Kurtzman) There’s an individual difference variable there. For some people who feel they can engage, that can be very satisfying; for others it can be anxiety provoking. People need to gauge what works for them and consider alternative ways to communicate our knowledge on this issue, such as by writing a blog or talking to a classroom. 

(Clayton) This illustrates the social nature of our discussions about climate change –it’s something that defines social groups and it’s very conflictual as a result. It’s not a good idea to confront people directly because the resulting debate will just solidify them in their position. What can be effective is trying to find common ground, such as a shared concern about health or energy independence.

(Speiser) Also, we need to focus on solutions, and how they benefit both our health and mental health. This conversation has often been reduced to whether you’re “for or against” climate change, because people disagree on the solutions. Knowing that there are a plethora of accessible solutions really serves to shift the conversation.

Leveraging New Knowledge

The report and webinar have gained extensive media coverage over the past week. Nearly two dozen articles were published in mainstream news publications such as The Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek; in science news outlets such as Inside Climate News, Popular Science, and Quartz; and in health news outlets including Everyday Health, Psychology Today, and Healio. Several outlets framed the report in the larger context of the Trump administration’s recent rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan and other rules safeguarding the environment.

These headlines bring important information and advice to millions of new readers who may realize they are not alone in their “eco-anxiety.” They also offer health professionals an opening to talk to their patients and peers about the emotional impact of climate change. In addition, we can use this moment to wield the “power of the press” by, for example, writing an op-ed for a local paper on the links between climate change, physical health, and mental health or by making ourselves available to reporters as an expert source.

Read and Listen Now!

You can download a copy of the "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate" report here.

Climate for Health, in collaboration with the American Psychological Association and the American Public Health Association, has also created a new set of “Climate Changes Mental Health” facts sheets, suitable for distribution in your work on this issue. We will update this blog with a link to it very soon.

Why not watch the webinar right now? Just click on the arrow.

 

Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at miranda@ecoamerica.org.