The Impacts of Extreme Weather Events on Child Mental Health

Two years ago, also in May, we had a period of brutally hot weather in middle Georgia.  In fact, I remember a week-long stretch where my son, now 10 years old, came home from school and told me that he “didn’t feel good” when outside during recess.  This struck a cord with me as I was experiencing something similar.  Specifically, I noticed that my allergies were most aggravated when outdoors in high heat.  At the time, I had the distinct and uneasy feeling that something was changing in the environment, but I wasn’t sure of the particulars.  Fast forward in time and I’ve done my homework – I now know that air pollution, aeroallergens, and heat interact and contribute to overall air quality.   Specifically, high heat amplifies air pollution, which in turn makes aeroallergens (including pollen) more virulent.  Incidentally, air quality can be checked for most locations in the United States at by entering your zip code or city name; monitoring air quality is one way to thoughtfully manage your exposure to outdoor pollutants and airborne allergens.

You might be wondering what all of this talk of air pollution has to do with mental health – the primary focus of May, Mental Health Awareness Month.  Well, I can tell you that when I have these intensified allergic symptoms – or notice them in my kids – it affects me physically and mentally.  It begs the question (a question my son has asked me repeatedly): What happens if we cannot upend climate change?   Will the earth be livable?  The mere suggestion is quite upsetting to the thinking woman or man who is not interested in moving to Mars.

As the mother of two, and a faculty member at the Mercer University School of Medicine, all of this contemplation prompted me to launch a new, but related, line of investigation.  That is, I’ve broadened my research program, originally focused on postpartum maternal functioning and mood, to include a line of inquiry centered on the effects of climate change on maternal and child mental health.  In fact, we recently conducted an examination of the effects of Extreme Weather Events (EWEs) on child mental health and behavior.  Specifically, we canvassed the literature across all types of EWEs including hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, extreme heat/cold, wildfires, floods, and drought with the intention of answering the following questions:

  • What types of psychological symptoms have been observed in EWE-exposed children?
  • What factors influence recovery from EWE-related trauma?

And, lastly:

  • What are the implications for the screening and treatment of EWE-exposed children? (i.e., what can be done to help?)

What we learned, in a nutshell…

  • Childhood EWE exposure is associated with a wide range of psychological symptoms including (but not limited to) posttraumatic stress, anxiety, depression, aggression, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts in extreme cases.
  • Degree of loss strongly influences recovery. Examples of a high degree of loss due EWE exposure include: injury, death, property damage, and financial devastation.
  • Children are, in general, very resilient and most recover fully.  Factors that promote recovery are social/parental support, effective coping skills, and the ability to reframe the situation as an opportunity for growth.

So, what are the real-world implications of this research?   Children (and adults) who experience trauma due to EWE exposure should be screened for mental health effects and supported through available interventions.  Speaking of interventions…more robust mental health infrastructure to support EWE survivors is needed.  The very good news:  Published reports indicate that there is substantial value in post-disaster screening and treatment for both parents and children.  Let’s get to work!

Jennifer Barkin, M.S, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Community Medicine and OB/GYN at the Mercer University School of Medicine and serves as the Academic Liaison to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Dr. Barkin sits on the Executive Committee of Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action, a state affiliate of Climate for Health partner, The Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health.

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