Hidden disasters: Examining the mental toll of climate change

Heat waves and typhoons are known to claim lives and damage property. New research suggests that these disasters can also affect our mental health.

The devastating effects of climate change have long wreaked havoc worldwide, ranging from rising temperatures and sea levels to extreme weather events and the loss of ecosystems. However, climate change is not only reshaping the external world; it is also altering people’s mental health. 

From ecological grief to increased aggression, its impact is profound and pervasive. As the Earth continues to warm at a rapid pace, the relationship between climate and our emotions becomes impossible to ignore.

The looming threat of environmental destruction has been linked to increased stress and anxiety.

Scaling climactic moods

While numerous studies recognize the environment as a dimension of health, they have only recently understood the role of climate change in this issue. “There have been emerging interests, scientifically, in terms of policies and discourse, on the intersection between climate crisis and mental health,” notes Dr. John Jamir Benzon Aruta, an environmental psychologist and associate professor from the College of Liberal Arts. He believes that this trend in research emphasizes how disasters are outcomes of the broader climate crisis.  

At a glance, the connection between climate change and mental health may not be obvious because it often operates in subtle yet insidious ways; Aruta explains that climate change can affect one’s mental health through a combination of direct and slow-onset events. 

Direct events refer to the actual disaster, which can impact people’s lives long after the winds have died down and the fire has stopped burning. For instance, the journal Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes analyzed the psychological impact of Typhoon Yolanda. One study between survivors and unaffected individuals found that post-traumatic stress disorder was prevalent among survivors at 9.4 percent, further underscoring the effects of environment-related stressors. 

Meanwhile, slow-onset events refer to conditions that evolve gradually, including long-term changes in the sea level and chronic droughts. The latter can be a huge source of stress and anxiety for farming communities because it can lead to sudden economic losses. As their agricultural yield plummets, so does their income. For some families, this problem can even trigger feelings of guilt and hopelessness. “[You have] no food on the table [and can’t] send your kids to school. Imagine the mental health consequences of that to those parents [and] farmers,” Aruta points out.

Distress rooted in disaster 

Apart from stirring negative emotions, climate change can also indirectly worsen existing mental health challenges. Consider the relationship between extreme heat and the risk of suicide. While the two issues seem unrelated, research shows that there is a strong correlation between them. According to Yoonhee Kim, an associate professor of the Department of Global Environmental Health at the University of Tokyo, warm climates may affect the neurotransmitters regulating people’s moods. This can impair their ability to function and be one of the reasons they harm themselves. 

Aruta has made similar observations in the past. Apart from depression and suicide, he notes that communities in warm climates tend to exhibit higher rates of aggression, which are correlated with adverse mental health outcomes. “For example, communities close to the temperature in Baguio City have lower aggression. They are more agreeable…but in hotter communities, there are more reports of conflict, crimes, and aggression.”

While high temperatures alone are not responsible for these issues, they highlight how climate change induces a spectrum of reactions. The umbrella term “climate anxiety,” also referred to as “eco-anxiety,” is used to describe this particular form of emotional and mental distress. Because they are seen as a normal reaction to real environmental threats, climate anxiety is not listed as a mental health disorder. In fact, Aruta believes that these reactions can even drive people to engage in environmental advocacies.

Protecting the most vulnerable

Aruta mentions that climate anxiety is most prevalent among young individuals, as they are the most worried about how climate change will affect their future. Other affected populations include indigenous groups and people from low-income backgrounds because they are often “forced by the system to reside in climate-vulnerable areas.” The elderly and people with disabilities also face unique challenges. Aruta states that in the event of a natural disaster, they may “not [be] mobile enough to relocate, for instance, [and] go to safer areas.”

Apart from an individual’s socioeconomic status, several cultural factors may also make them more vulnerable to climate-related mental health issues. Among these is the stigma against mental health issues, which can prevent people from seeking help. Aruta adds that some people attribute the rising frequency of natural disasters to “the will of God,” unaware of the individuals and companies that should be held accountable for climate change. 

Climate migration, defined by Aruta as “movement driven by environmental changes,” is also a common experience of Filipinos that results in stress. As one of his current topics of interest, Aruta suggests that more evidence and research should be made on how climate migration affects mental health, especially considering how adjusting to new climates is often made more difficult without an immediate source of livelihood.

An urgent call for climate action

Due to the scope of climate change, it can feel like an insurmountable threat. While there are interventions such as ecotherapy and group counseling that can help people with climate anxiety, Aruta believes that they are also limited. Ultimately, the best way to solve these issues is to address climate change itself. Being more aware of one’s behavior toward the environment, especially regarding water, energy, and plastic consumption, is a simple yet effective way for an individual to engage in climate action. 

Aruta’s demand for action amid the rise in climate-induced mental health issues is a simple reminder that a problem as impactful as climate change can only be solved by digging at its roots: “When young people see that there are changes and that there is hope, we prioritize the future of the next generation.”

Ivan Gabriel Pilien

By Ivan Gabriel Pilien

Shanti Tomaneng

By Shanti Tomaneng

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