The effects of the climate crisis range from heightened anxiety to violence, and to an increase in suicides after certain extreme events related to climate change, explained Dr. Dovilė Šorytė, an environmental psychologist and researcher at Vilnius University’s Faculty of Philosophy in Lithuania.
The report, co-authored by the American Psychological Association, first suggests that a distinction should be made between the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on human mental health. According to Dr Šorytė, the direct impact comes from the increasing frequency and intensity of the natural disasters associated with climate change – floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires and heat waves.
The consequences are felt both directly and indirectly by those affected
“In such events, people can suffer physical injuries, as well as losing loved ones, their home or their source of income. This means they may experience shock, stress, grief and mourning, along with feeling hopeless and helpless. Witnesses to the events may also experience strong emotions. After a natural disaster, the number of cases of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide increase,” said Šorytė.
She suggested the 2013-2014 floods in the UK as an example: 3 years after the floods, 7.9% of the flood-affected population experienced symptoms of depression and 17.5% experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; compared to 0.9% and 2.6% of the unaffected population. Damage to the homes of the affected residents was highlighted as the main reason for a decline in their emotional well-being.
According to the psychologist, the indirect impacts arise from more gradual processes – such as rising temperatures and sea levels – and the associated changes relate to less secure food systems, a weaker infrastructure and economic losses.
“These changes can lead to feelings of loss, anxiety, helplessness, fatalism and loss of control, combined with increased rates of depression, sleep disturbances and substance abuse. In this case, physical health problems, such as higher rates of infectious or cardiovascular disease, which are associated with rising temperatures, can also affect a person’s psychological well-being,” said Dr Šorytė. She added that this is an inverse relationship: our mental state affects our physical health. For example, prolonged stress damages the immune system. Therefore, the psychological effects and the physiological ailments are very much interlinked.
Poor people and children among the most vulnerable
The researcher argues that the impact of climate change on communities includes a weakening of social cohesion and an increase in violence, conflict and aggression. Projections made in the United States show that climate change will lead to an additional 3.3 million attacks between 2010 and 2099.
“Violent behaviour is particularly associated with high temperatures, because heat is a physiologically unpleasant stressor that can lead to frustration and hostility. The psychological consequences, at the community level, are also associated with increased competition for natural resources, migration driven by ecological causes and a decline in social stability,” the psychologist pointed out.
With regard to the groups that will be the most affected by climate change, the researcher first identified communities in certain geographical areas or regions that are more severely affected by climate change, such as island populations, as well as people whose livelihoods are directly dependent on the natural environment. She cited the example of the droughts that occurred in India between 1995 and 2011, which significantly increased the number of suicides among farmers, especially those living in poor rural areas.
“It is not surprising that communities with high levels of poverty and socio-economic inequality are among the most vulnerable. Older people, as well as those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, migrants, refugees, and women, especially those who are pregnant or have recently given birth, infants and children are also more likely to be affected by the climate crisis.”
She emphasized that children are even more likely than adults to develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic experience, and the forms of their disorders can be more severe.
“It has been estimated that around 175 million children around the world are affected by natural disasters caused by climate change every year. Therefore, it is important to take into account the most vulnerable groups when applying any measures to mitigate the effects of climate change or to enhance our level of adaptation,” she explained.
Ecological anxiety leads to lower birth rates
The psychologist pointed out that anxiety about climate change can be related to threats to a person’s own health or life, as well as having an impact on their children, friends and family, future generations, and other species. According to her, this anxiety is specifically linked to the current or expected damage, loss, and destruction caused by the changing climate.
“There is also a broader concept of ecological anxiety, which includes anxiety about the consequences of the climate crisis, as well as anxiety about any damage or changes in the environment, whether it is current or anticipated. The inability to predict and control such changes, in combination with the uncertainty surrounding them, is an important feature of this anxiety. In addition, ecological anxiety is associated with feelings anger, guilt, shame and despair,” said Dr Šorytė.
She adds that the term ‘ecological mourning’ is often referred to in this context, meaning the grief and sadness experienced in response to the loss of important places, ecosystems, or species. A recent study in ten countries found that nearly 60% of young people aged 16-25 felt very or extremely concerned about climate change. “Some people are even questioning whether it is worth having children, because of these concerns,” the researcher said.
She pointed out that the negative emotions related to climate change or other environmental problems are a natural response, so this should not be seen as a problem in itself. However, if such emotions become paralyzing, disrupting a person’s daily life and causing them to feel hopeless, she urges taking them seriously and seeking help.
According to Dr. Šorytė, tackling climate change requires both conversation and concrete action. The first step is to acknowledge the emotions that arise and to talk about our experience of climate change.
The researcher believes that another effective way of coping with anxiety is to get involved in specific environmentally-friendly actions, aimed at helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. This not only contributes to alleviating the problem, but is also an empowering act that strengthens control and reduces the feelings of helplessness. Spending time in nature can also help alleviate anxiety, while at the same time strengthening a person’s motivation to protect the environment.