Investigating climate change and mental health

Share on Pinterest
A youth walks over dried mud on the banks of a river after waters from the seasonal monsoon rains receded in Allahabad, India. Photo by Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • Researchers have explored the relationship between climate change and mental health in a major literature review.
  • The authors found a significant amount of research demonstrating how climate change poses risks to mental health.
  • However, they conclude that more research is needed to explore how to mitigate these risks.

A major literature review highlights the connections that researchers have found between climate change and mental health.

The review, which appears in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, demonstrates that climate change is a major risk to people’s mental health.

However, most research on this topic has focused on generating insight into the importance of these risks but not mitigating them.

The authors call for continued investigation in this growing field, with a particular emphasis on protecting people’s mental health from the threats posed by climate change.

Researchers have argued that human-influenced climate change poses an existential threat to civilization, with many associated ecological, social, political, economic, and health risks.

In terms of human health, there is a wealth of research exploring the adverse physical health effects of climate change.

However, there has been less investigation into the effects of climate change on mental health.

Speaking to Medical News Today, Prof. Tahseen Jafry, director of the Centre for Climate Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland, said that this lack of research was particularly the case concerning people’s experience in low-income countries.

“Globally, there is very little research that pays attention to the mental health impacts of climate change, particularly in the poorest nations.”

“The lack of qualitative data regarding on-the-ground realities and lived experiences, particularly from the poorest countries in the world, makes this one of the most prolific and least understood areas of study,” said Prof. Jafry.

The authors of the review were particularly interested to see if they could connect previous research to five research priorities for protecting health in the face of climate change, which the World Health Organization (WHO) identified in 2009.

The research priorities that the WHO identified are:

  • assessing the risks
  • identifying the most effective interventions
  • guiding health-promoting mitigation and adaptation decisions in other sectors
  • improving decision support
  • estimating the costs of protecting health from climate change

In their scoping review, the authors identified 120 articles published between 2001 and 2020 that related to climate change and mental health.

In their discussion of the findings, Dr. Fiona Charlson and her co-authors say that “[t]he literature consistently points to the negative associations that climate change-related events have with individuals’ and communities’ mental health.”

“Climate change-related events were shown to be associated with psychological distress, worsened mental health (particularly among people with pre-existing mental health conditions), increased psychiatric hospitalizations, higher mortality among people with mental illness, and heightened suicide rates.”

Dr. Charlson, an associate professor at the Queensland Centre of Mental Health Research and School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, Australia, said to MNT:

“This review was really needed to examine what we know about the mental health impacts of climate change, which are expected to become significant over the coming decades.”

“There is a lot we still don’t know about the mental health impacts of climate change. Research needs to accelerate and broaden in scope to discover solutions-focused approaches to protecting our mental health in the face of climate change,” said Dr. Charlson.

In their study, Dr. Charlson and her colleagues highlight that while research in this area is increasing, it primarily focuses on the risks posed to people’s mental health and well-being.

Dr. Charlson and her colleagues argue that research concentrating on mitigating these risks is also necessary.

Speaking with MNT, Dr. Gesche Huebner, a lecturer in sustainable and healthy built environments at the Bartlett, University College London, praised the study and noted that mental health does not typically receive the same level of focus as physical health does. Dr. Huebner was not involved in the study.

“The review is an important contribution to the research field of climate change and mental health. It is very well executed, including registering the review, following a reporting guideline, and conducting a quality assessment of the reviewed studies,” said Dr. Huebner.

“As the authors point out, mental health is still in a secondary position to physical health when it comes to discussing the impact of climate change.”

– Dr. Huebner

“We need to get into a position where we can spell out the costs that result from climate change impacting on health — to make sure these impacts move into the focus of decision-makers and authorities around the world.”

“In order to be able to do this, we need to conduct more research; as the authors point out, while this is a rapidly growing research area, it is still underdeveloped.”

Dr. Huebner recognized the need to conduct more research on mitigating the effects of climate change on mental health. However, she also suggested that we still do not fully understand the risks.

“We definitely need to look more at how we intervene to protect mental health against the consequences of climate change. However, I also think we need to do a lot of work to understand the risks better.”

“As an example, a recent study showed that relative humidity and heatwaves had associations with decreases and increases in suicide rates and that women showed a greater increase than men.”

“So there is clearly something important to be figured out about how different parts of the population and, in fact, different populations respond to extreme weather events,” said Dr. Huebner.

Prof. Jafry said that a more detailed evidence base — encompassing both health and social justice issues — would be crucial for developing solutions to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis on people’s mental health and well-being.

“The limited evidence base is a major barrier to addressing the problem. The knowledge and evidence gap cuts across two domains: the health data set and the social science justice data set — explicitly, climate justice, human rights, and inequality.”

“These data sets need to come together to help us make sense of the size and scale of the issues and help in the development of solutions and practical support needed for communities and individuals.”

“Research currently being conducted in Malawi by Glasgow Caledonian University’s Centre for Climate Justice is filling this data gap. Our fieldwork with women in Northern Malawi is highlighting areas of concern.”

“For example, extreme rainfall, flooding, and food insecurity is leading to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The work is also helping to shape the kind of support required to recover from these climate-related impacts and build resilience for future climate-related challenges.”

– Prof. Jafry

Prof. Jafry highlighted that central to the climate crisis are issues of climate justice, saying: “There is no doubt that much more research needs to be conducted in the least developed countries; those who have contributed least to climate change but are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“A burgeoning mental health crisis will compound many of the problems already being faced by the poorest people who are least equipped to deal with it. This is not only unjust, but it is impinging on their human right to have a decent quality of life.

“To drive global attention to this agenda, the research being conducted at the Centre for Climate Justice will be disseminated globally, including to the WHO, to give the whole subject matter much more visibility to as wide a range of stakeholders to act,” Prof. Jafry concluded.

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/climate-change-and-mental-health-how-do-we-mitigate-the-risks

Share