When we think about climate change we usually think of it in terms of property destruction and loss of life but there is another demission to climate change that seems to remain under the radar screen. That demission is the impact climate change will, and is, having on our mental health.
A report, reviewing the evidence and expert opinion related to this subject, just released by The Climate Institute, does a great job of highlighting the likelihood of increasing mental health issues associated with climate change.
According to the report the reality is that extremes of weather—long, like drought or brief, like a cyclone—are exacting an all too human toll:
- Following a severe weather event, a significant part of the community—as many as one in five—will suffer the debilitating effects of extreme stress, emotional injury and despair. Unabated, a more hostile climate will spell a substantial rise in the incidence of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression — all at great personal suffering and, consequently, social and economic cost.
- The emotional and psychological toll of disasters can linger for months, even years, affecting whole families, the capacity for people to work and the wellbeing of the community. Higher rates of drug and alcohol misuse, violence, family dissolution, and suicide are more likely to follow more extreme weather events. Evidence is beginning to emerge that drought and heat waves lead to higher rates of self-harm and suicide, as much as 8 per cent higher.
- Mental illness is already the second largest contributor to the disease burden in Australia. In any given year, one in five Australians suffers from a mental disorder of some kind, potentially making millions of people more vulnerable to mental ill-health in an increasingly hostile climate.
- The treatment and management of mental health problems already costs taxpayers over $5 billion per year, while the cost in lost productivity is estimated at another $2.7 billion—costs set to rise in a changing climate. Mental health problems also tend to coalesce with economic and social ones, meaning that the overall toll is likely to be larger still.
- Employment and cost-of-living impacts usually precede a mental health toll: in the recent drought, for example, 2004 figures indicate that around one in four rural workers had lost their job—about 100,000 agricultural workers, contractors and those employed in allied businesses. By 2007, prolonged dry conditions had eroded Australians’ quality of life, in dollar terms, to the tune of approximately $5.4 billion. At the same time, the cost of the average grocery bill for all Australian households rose 12 per cent; stark evidence of the affect on the cost of living by extreme weather events and a foretaste of worse to come without action on climate change.
- Rural, regional, remote and peri-urban communities are particularly exposed in a deteriorating climate. Climate change compounds the chronic difficulties and inequities that already face many communities—Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous. Already, many parts of the country find it hard to recruit dedicated health care and social service professionals. Climate change will almost certainly increase the demand for social support and mental health services and, at the same time, make it harder to sustain them in affected areas.
- Climate change will render already stressful resource-use conflicts—like those in the Murray-Darling Basin—even more volatile and damaging to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.
- In the long term, there is a heightened risk of stress and tension amongst both newcomers and their host communities as people are forced to move permanently and en masse in response to a rapidly shifting climate. The loss of a sense of place—particularly for Indigenous peoples—may magnify and complicate the mental and emotional pressures.
- Children, in particular, are vulnerable to pre-disaster anxiety and post-trauma illness. Adults’ failure to act on climate change may, like the indecision that perpetuated the Cold War, lead to long-lived insecurity and anxiety in young people.
- Even for those not directly affected by an extreme weather event, news of loved ones lost or property damaged, together with the sheer the enormity of disasters like the Queensland floods—often magnified by media coverage—can be distressing and debilitating.
Having lived through the flooding here in Queensland Australia I can attest that even people that were not directly affected by the flooding also suffered from mental health related issues. This is most likely due to empathy which is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. Different people have different levels of empathy so different people are effected to different degrees.
Although not really covered in this report there are also mental health issues involving people who suffer simply because of the knowledge they have pertaining to the impacts possible due to climate change. I see this in many of my own friends and fellow activist and have gone through it myself.
I also see mental health as a major impediment to action on climate change because so many people use copping mechanisms such as denial or cognitive dissonance to deal with their fear of, or the reality of, climate change.
Guest post by Ronnie Wright
World Change Cafe