Why Climate Change Could Create a Mental Health Crisis
by Kristina Chew
December 12, 2013
At 6 am on Tuesday, my phone rang and an automated voice announced that my son’s autism school was closed all day due to “inclement weather.” It’s not unusual for it to snow in December in New Jersey but, as a result of climate change, the past few winters have been for the most part mild with only a snowstorm or two. We, and quite a few New Jerseyans, have gotten out of the habit of numerous snow days. For Charlie, who (like many autistic individuals) struggles with change, an unexpected day off from school is an anxiety-creating disruption.
The erratic weather and extreme weather events like last year’s Hurricane Sandy (which shut down schools across the state for, in some places like my town, more than two weeks) can be unsettling for many, and any, of us. A report from the National Wildlife Federation specifically says that the “uncertainty and upheaval caused by erratic weather might cause more Americans to become depressed, anxious and even suicidal.” Could climate change be creating a mental health emergency?
Psychiatrists, psychologists and public health and climate experts all contributed to the NWF report. The recent prolonged drought in the Southwest, major wildfires in the West and flooding, hurricanes and tornados in the Midwest and East have been taking their toll on Americans:
The panel predicted a rise in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide and violence. The burden will fall especially on children, the elderly and those with existing mental problems, as well as the poor and disadvantaged who are, for example, less able to pay for air conditioning during a heat wave.
Climate change can be especially challenging for the elderly to cope with, as they find themselves living in a world in which familiar parameters have shifted. Children are also very much affected as they will be living for a longer time in a hotter, wetter world. The age-old practice of playing outdoors isn’t the same when days are weirdly wet or intensely hot and (even for those of us not in China where dangerous levels of pollution in many cities have become the norm) the air is heavy and breathing difficult.
It’s enough to give us “solastalgia” — a word coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003, in the midst of a deep drought in New South Wales – according to the NWF report. This condition refers to the melancholy and distress caused by experiencing one’s home environment being ineluctably altered into, as Forbes puts it, a “disquieting new normal.”
Treehugger cites research (pdf) by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox of Cape Breton University about how global warming is impacting Inuit communities in northern Canada. Warmer winters and thinning ice are changing the habits and way of life for those in the remote, coastal community of Rigolet. Already affected by forced relocation and involuntary assimilation after being placed in boarding schools, for many in this Inuit community, traveling over the ice has been a crucial coping activity. Residents who have found themselves stuck inside describe feeling bored and depressed and losing their connection with nature.
One individual indeed says that he is “like a caged animal” when he cannot get outside. That is, it is not just the disruption in our routines or even the damage and destruction done to property due to erratic and extreme weather that addles us. Climate change is connected to people’s whole connection to the land, to the natural world, being severed, leaving them feeling something like a loss of their selves.
Other research, including a 2009 study from the American Psychological Association, (pdf) has linked climate change to increased anxiety and stress. Global warming has also been suggested to be at the root of societal unrest and even a factor in global insecurity and political conflict, including the recent uprisings in the Middle East.
It’s the loss of that connection to nature that is perhaps at the heart of any distress, any solastalgia, that we experience. For my son, a snowstorm doesn’t just mean he has to spend a weekday at home rather than being among the other kids and teachers at his school. He loves to be outdoors on his bike and snow, slush and ice can make bike riding challenging. Nonetheless, he and his dad have still attempted it; they’ve never let a brutally hot day in a summer of record highs stop them either.
The NWF report is a reminder of how, even though many of us live in urban and suburban communities, nature and our connection to it are fundamental for our mental as well as our physical well-being. Fighting climate change is good not only for our bodies but our minds too.
- Global warming impacts our mental health (treehugger.com)
- What climate change does to our minds. (thetyee.ca)
- What Climate Change Does to Our Minds (in News) (thetyee.ca)
- Depressed? Climate change could be to blame (salon.com)
- Scientists explore paths to âradicalâ emissions reductions (trust.org)
- LibDem- Conservative NHS Cuts bring England’s mental health services to breaking point (derbypa.wordpress.com)
- Rep. Tim Murphy Introduces Mental-Health Legislation (blogs.wsj.com)
- Experts Urge Climate Change Alleviation (chimalaya.org)
- CNN Hosts Rare Live Contentious Global Warming Debate – Marc Morano vs. Sierra Club’s Michael Brune & Philippe Cousteau Jr. – Full Transcript – Morano: ‘So record cold is now evidence of man-made global warming? (climatedepot.com)
- Poor Countries Are a Century Behind Rich Ones Climate Change-Wise (news.softpedia.com)
At a press conference this afternoon on New York City’s preparations for Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the safety of prisoners on Rikers Island, which lies near the mouth of Long Island Sound, between Queens and the Bronx. Bloomberg appeared annoyed by the question, and responded somewhat opaquely: “Rikers Island, the land is up where they are and jails are secured.” Apparently unable to fathom that anyone’s main concern would be for the welfare of the more than 12,000 prisoners on Rikers, Bloomberg then reassured listeners: “Don’t worry about anybody getting out.”
The last time a major hurricane was headed for New York–Irene, in August of 2011–Bloomberg gave a similarly terse response to a question about the island prison. “We are not evacuating Rikers,” he declared even as other shoreline communities and City Island were cleared of residents. With little information forthcoming from the New York City Department of Corrections and Rikers left blank on the city’s Evacuation Zone maps, prisoners’ loved ones “were in a panic,” says Lisa Ortega, whose 16-year-old son was being held on Rikers at the time. A story originating on Solitary Watch, “Locked Up and Left Behind,” went viral, and thousands of readers expressed concern or outrage.
This time, the Department of Corrections (if not the Mayor) appears better prepared for inquiries about the status of Rikers in a hurricane. By Saturday, it had proactively posted a notice on its website stating:
Given its elevation, Rikers Island can withstand any storm up to and including a Category 4 hurricane. Rikers Island facilities are NOT in low-lying areas, and therefore like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, is not seriously threatened by severe flooding.
The personal safety of New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) staff and the inmate population is clearly our top priority and in the highly unlikely event that an evacuation would become necessary, it would occur. The NYCDOC response to an unprecedented disaster of this magnitude would be integrated of course, into a city or region-wide strategy. The City has carefully reviewed Rikers Island, as it has done with the entire city, and no section of Rikers Island facilities are located in Hurricane Evacuation Zone A.
Be assured that NYCDOC staff will remain on Rikers Island and the facility is a fully self-sustaining entity, prepared to operate and care for inmates in an emergency if such an emergency develops.
- Prisoners to Remain on Rikers Island As Hurricane Sandy Heads for New York (solitarywatch.com)