Dr. Susan Clayton on How Climate Change Affects Mental Health

By path2positive

Dr. Susan Clayton is an environmental psychologist and chair of the environmental studies program at the College of Wooster in Ohio, and co-author of the 2014 American Psychological Association/ecoAmerica report Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change. Read her full bio here.

Recently, the American Public Health Association and ecoAmerica co-sponsored Making the Connection: Climate Changes Health, a four-part webinar series investigating the health impacts of climate change. In the fourth webinar of this series participants learned how the conditions of climate change can impact mental health and how this presents itself in our communities. You can view a recorded version of the webinar here.  Dr. Clayton, a panelist from that webinar, joins us in answering participants’ follow-up questions below.

Regardig solastalgia: Can you comment on the world view of adults versus children? Do children have a different perception, when their life experience growing is a world that is constantly changing?

I don’t have any data about this. On the one hand, a sense of stability is particularly important for children. On the other, they can be quite resilient to change. I would suspect that it depends a lot on age, that children are less likely to be nostalgic than adults, but that how they are affected depends on whether they have other sources of stability (such as a stable family or social context) to help them cope with an unstable environment.

Is there evidence of changes in the seasons of mental health as a result of climate change?

If this question is about seasonal changes in mental health, I haven’t seen any data about this.

What would be your best suggestion for education for someone who wants to work with the environment and mental health?

Get the appropriate training and degree to be a mental health practitioner, and try to find a program in which there is someone on the faculty interested in environmental impacts on mental health. The qualifications are most important because you can develop your own approach later.

I need one idea to deal with the fear and beliefs of the far right. I live in WY and many people are losing coal-based jobs. The current WY Senator was elected saying climate change is a lie. He is a physician!

Try to find common ground, such as in human health and wellbeing, and attachment to the local environment. Rather than confronting their inaccurate beliefs and negative perceptions directly, which could make them defensive and increase us/them thinking, talk about the health impacts of coal (which go well beyond climate change), and maybe the love of the local environmental beauty and the increase in “greener” jobs (though you might not want to describe them this way!) such as in alternative energy and tourism.

How do we message to children about climate change with the intent of informing without traumatizing?

It depends on the age, but in general let them know it is an issue but also that people are working on solutions and that there are things everyone – including the child – can do to help. It’s not good for children to feel too afraid, but it is good for them to feel that people are not hiding things from them and that they can participate in a solution.

How can we educate some politicians at the policy making level to accept the fact that there is climate change and it is a health crisis?

Keep at it! Politicians are responsive to the voices of constituents. Explain that you are concerned and why, and if there is a specific thing you want them to do (e.g., vote for or co-sponsor legislation), let them know. Don’t be confrontational but let them know it’s important to you.

What undeveloped resources are urgently needed to make a significant and immediate difference in addressing the mental health impacts of climate change?

This question can be answered in many ways. One of the biggest resources that has not been tapped is professional expertise. More training for mental health practitioners would make a big difference. We are also devoting much less attention and resources to preparing for the impacts of climate change, e.g. through infrastructure changes as well as through strengthening social support networks, than we should be. Some political will is needed for this.

I am wondering how we can best study the linkages between fitness, recreation and mental health. It may be a good way to connect the conditions outside (both in terms of weather and physiology). Is there a way to study fitness and mental health, while bringing in the climate component? What are some of the things controlled for when assessing climate change?

Studies of the impacts of climate change routinely control for things like socioeconomic status, age, and gender. Depending on the study, they may also include level of physical activity and mental health. The best way to incorporate climate depends on the goals of the study, but average temperature and rainfall in an area, and/or departure from average (e.g., is it hotter, drier, or wetter; is the weather more unusual) are frequently considered. Proximity to “green” areas (e.g., urban parks), or even tree coverage near the home, may also be included.

What does every psychologist or psychiatrist need to know at a minimum about climate change as it relates to their profession and how can it become a greater professional priority? How can they best bring their expertise to advocating for solutions?

This depends on your specialization, but if you are involved in mental health then you should understand the ways in which climate change can be a source of stress and anxiety as well as ways in which people can gain a sense of efficacy and control by preparing to deal with climate change.

Can you recommend policy steps?

As stated above, I think training for health professionals (including mental health) is important.  Communities should also be developing plans for adapting to the anticipated local impacts of climate change, including the health impacts. Of course, we should also be thinking about policies that can mitigate climate change, e.g. by reducing fossil fuel consumption.

The general public is too busy consuming and avoiding the inevitable consequences of their actions. This particular webinar is incredibly informative and can serve as an educational tool for everyone, not just professionals in the industry. How can we make this information more accessible to everyone?

I have no particular answer here, but ecoAmerica is trying to make the information as widely available as possible and I encourage people to share the links.

Can you recommend research on why/how we need to be working on climate with youth?

Tori Derr and Carlie Trott are two young researchers who have been working with youth. The research suggests that people in this age group experience climate change as a stressor and would appreciate ways to get involved.

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