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Climate Change and Mental Health: Thinking Beyond Disasters

Yale Public Health Magazine, Focus: Spring 2024
by Sarah Lowe


My path to researching climate change and mental health was indirect. I applied to graduate programs in clinical psychology with the goal of studying how social determinants of health shape the educational and mental health trajectories of members of marginalized populations. That goal changed when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. The hurricane and its aftermath opened my eyes to the ways in which collective crises disproportionately affect low-income and minoritized groups, elucidating and exacerbating health disparities.

As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team on a longitudinal study of low-income mothers who were community college students in New Orleans when Katrina hit, demonstrating the hurricane’s impact on their physical and mental health, social relationships, and education and employment activities. The project launched me into the field of trauma and mental health, and I have since been involved in other disaster mental health studies, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York City, Hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

Last year, I hosted a webinar on Climate Change and Trauma for the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies alongside my colleagues Dana Garfin, of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and Betty Lai, of Boston College. When asked how the field has evolved over the past decade, Lai replied that climate change was once rarely mentioned in disaster mental health research. This insight resonated with me. With mounting evidence that climate change is increasing the intensity of “natural”events like hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and floods, research on their consequences for health and well-being is increasingly urgent.

Yet disasters are one of several ways that climate change could undermine mental health. Indicators of climate change are often subtle and slow-creeping – gradual increases in temperatures, years-long changes in ecosystems – and these, too, could contribute to psychological symptomatology. My colleagues and I recently published a systematic review of 57 studies on this topic, a strikingly small number compared to the robust disaster mental health literature. Our review identified several key research gaps, including a dearth of studies conducted in Central and South America and Africa – regions that are projected to face some of the most devastating consequences of climate change.

The mental health impacts of climate change also extend beyond those tied to direct exposures. The existential threat of climate change – the perception that it could dramatically and permanently reduce the quality of human life on Earth, up to the possibility of human extinction – is undoubtedly contributing to the current mental health crisis. Burgeoning research, for example, has delved into climate change anxiety, defined as negative emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses associated with concerns about climate change. For example, in a pilot study with Dr. Laelia Benoit, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine, and colleagues at Suffolk University and the College of Wooster, we showed the expansiveness of young adults’ worries and their links with clinically significant anxiety and depression.

I am often asked how I can study climate change, trauma, and mental health without succumbing to hopelessness and despair. In answering, I am reminded of a finding from our pilot study: young adults’ climate change anxiety was positively associated with depression symptoms, but only among those who were not engaged in collective action. I see collaborative research on the mental health impacts of climate change, whether major disasters like Hurricane Katrina, chronic indicators or existential threats, as a form of collective action. By elucidating links between exposures and symptoms, we can inform how to foster resilience and strength in the face of global challenges.

Your Action Item For Change:

Take collective action. Working with others towards productive environmental goals channels our concerns constructively and is therapeutic.

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