Climate Disasters And Your Mental Health

It’s long overdue:  paying attention to the mental health impact of climate change and other human-made disasters, like the oil spill that’s begun long-term destruction of the gulf coast.  We’ve been neglecting the fact that humans are part of this vast, interconnected eco-system of Earth; that our mental and emotional lives can be damaged by the human actions upon our environment.

But gradually, we’re paying attention. I’m not  referring to us in the mental health professions here — In fact, we’ve been asleep at the wheel  in that respect, and are now, finally, coming around to recognize that climate change and other disasters are more than interesting academic subjects for discussion and research; that we have a responsibility for direct action.

Ironically, awareness of such mental health consequences has been addressed by broader groups of scientists; non-psychologists or psychiatrists  Here’s a good, very recent example:  Joe Romm, whose blog Climate Progress is consistently the best source of information and clarity about climate issues, has just put up a guest blog post on the human dimensions of oil spills, written by Drs. Thomas Webler, Seth Tuler, and Kirstin Dow.  They write:

In the past two years, we have studied how oil spills have impacted every aspect of human society—from individuals’ psychological and physical health to the practices and beliefs of cultures and everything in between.

Among the areas they focus on in their guest blog post are the mental health impacts and the social, cultural and social justice impacts of previous oil spills.  Regarding the mental health impacts:

Oil spills and spill responses can cause high levels of stress and psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress. The economic impacts on livelihood and family aspirations, anxieties associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, the stress of engaging in a large scale court battle, and the loss of valued landscape and ecological systems all contribute to stress on coastal residents and clean up workers.


In Prince William Sound, people talked about feeling that a part of them died when the Exxon Valdez oil inundated the area.  Dangerous levels of post-traumatic stress were reported among cleanup workers and residents in Alaska.  The news talk shows today are already replete with people expressing sadness and anger about this event.

Their entire piece is well-worth reading – it’s sobering and informative, as is another substantive report by The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health.  It presented findings regarding a wide range of health effects of climate change, including mental health and stress-related disorders:

Climate change may result in geographic displacement of populations, damage to property, loss of loved ones, and chronic stress, all of which can negatively affect mental health….

The most common mental health conditions associated with extreme events range from acute traumatic stress to more chronic stress-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief, depression, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, poor concentration, sleep difficulties, sexual dysfunction, social avoidance, irritability, and drug or alcohol abuse.  The chronic stress-related conditions and disorders resulting from severe weather or other climate change-related events may lead to additional negative health effects.

It’s a hopeful sign that some professional, advocacy organizations have begun addressing this issue.  For example, both Physicians for Social Responsibility and  Psychologists for Social Responsibility have described mental health risks from climate change to including increase in violent behavior, panic, group hysteria, depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, hopelessness and other symptoms.

Of course, the deniers will continue to disparage and, well…deny.  Actually, when they are compelled to do that it may be a good indicator that public awareness of the mental health effects of climate disasters is growing.  For example, Fox’s Sean Hannity’s recent ridicule of the mental health issues described in the Interagency Working Group’s report  For a slightly humorous take on psychology of climate change deniers and the consequences, see this piece that I wrote with Ev Ehrlich for the Huffington Post.

Needless to say, denying reality is never a good coping strategy, for the present or the future.  And yes, that’s a mental illness symptom.