Tag Archives: climate change

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.


Becoming Sane….Part II

“What Happened To My Mental Health?”

In Part I of “Becoming Sane in a Turbulent, Interconnected, Unpredictable World,” I wrote about why you need a new kind of emotional resiliency for success and well-being in today’s world.  Here, I’ll extend those thoughts about resiliency to psychological health in general.  Just as we need to redefine resiliency, I think we need to reformulate what a psychologically healthy adult looks like in this transformed world.  Here are my ideas about that:

Throughout most of the last century, adult psychological health has been largely equated with good management and coping skills: Managing stress within your work and personal life; and effective coping with or resolution of whatever emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood – and we all bring along some.

So, in your work that might include being clear about your career goals, and working your way up a fairly predictable set of steps to achieve power, recognition and financial success – all the things that we’ve equated with adult maturity and mental health.

At home, it would mean forming a long-term relationship that withstands the power struggles and other differences that often lead to affairs or even divorce.  You would assume that the healthy adult doest that via compromise at best, or disguised manipulation at worst.  In addition, you would accept “normal” decline of intimate connection and vitality over time.

But the fallout from the worldwide upheaval over the last few years have turned all those criteria of health upside down.  To be clear, it’s important to be able to manage conflicts that could derail your career or personal life.  But doing that isn’t enough to ensure future success, sanity or well-being in this turbulent and highly interdependent world we now live in.

Massive, interconnected forces within this globalized, unpredictable world add a host of new emotional and behavioral challenges to living a psychologically healthy, well-functioning and fulfilling life.

I deal with the fallout almost daily: People who’ve functioned pretty well in the past, but now feel as if they’re standing on tectonic plates shifting beneath them. Despite their best efforts, they struggle with mounting anxiety about the future of their own and their children’s lives, and confusion about their values and life purpose.

There’s the former Wall Street financial executive who told me he’d always defined himself by “making it through the next end zone” in his career, working long hours to ensure financial success. Now, as his company – and career – crumbled, he found that in addition to sacrificing time with his family, he had sacrificed his health: He has diabetes and high blood pressure. “Kind of a reverse ‘deal-flow,’ ” he lamented to me.

And the management consultant, pressured to ratchet up her travel to keep her career on track. “I’d been coping with everything, I thought,” she told me, “though I don’t like needing Zoloft to do it.” Instead of her career becoming more predictable as she gained seniority, her career propelled her into an even wilder ride. “Now I don’t have enough time for my daughter or my husband,” she said. “What kind of life is this? . . . My husband’s checked out, emotionally. And what am I teaching my daughter?”

Or the lawyer, who’d prided himself on “eating what I kill, and I’m a good killer.” He told me he has “more money than I ever dreamed of,” but also says that, “secretly, I hate what I do for a living.” But what’s the alternative, he asks, without “looking like a dysfunctional failure if I opt out?” After a failed marriage, he entered therapy and had begun to realize how his father’s unfulfilled dreams of “success” have impacted his own life — when suddenly his father died. “I’m in a tailspin,” he says; depressed and confused about what his own purpose in life is.

All of these people were on the kinds of life paths they expected would bring them predictable rewards. But counting on that linear upward climb is now hazardous to your mental health.

In fact, following that old path can make you more vulnerable to Continue reading