When people think about the health impacts of climate change, they tend to focus on the physical impacts: the spread of vector-borne diseases, rises in heat-related and respiratory illnesses, more severe cases of malnutrition, and the increased risk of injury or death from extreme weather events, among others. What people don’t tend to think about are the “invisible” impacts—the mental and psychosocial effects of climate change that will also impact our well-being. These impacts are expected to be especially prevalent among marginalized populations that face additional challenges, such as lacking access to health care or living in a particularly vulnerable location.
Mood disorders, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression are among the many mental health effects we can expect from climate change. These are often linked to extreme conditions, such as prolonged droughts, food scarcity, or severe disasters, or the loss of traditional homes and villages. Other extreme events, such as rising temperatures, may also fuel aggressive behavior and gender-based violence. New terms, such as “eco-anxiety” and “solastalgia” are even being coined to describe feelings of helplessness and concern about climate change.
With the lack of attention to this topic, I was both surprised and excited to see a side event at the COP26 World Health Organization (WHO) Pavilion on “Climate Justice & a Burgeoning Mental Health Crisis.” During the event, I heard from several speakers, including an Inuit woman who discussed the mental health impacts of traditional lands and landscapes changing, a Malawaian woman who discussed how disasters cause stress and food insecurity, and a Kenyan woman who shared her personal experience with gender-based violence. Hearing them share their lived experiences was an important reminder of who will actually be affected by the lack of research, policy, and discussion around mental health and climate change.
It’s not surprising that this was the only event on mental health I saw during COP26, or that mental health isn’t widely discussed among climate activists. Mental health cases are already underdiagnosed in many countries due to the stigma surrounding them. At the same time, there are a number of other factors that affect one’s mental health, including income, education, interpersonal support, and resources. The complexity of these factors makes it difficult to directly attribute mental health disorders to climate change. It’s also hard to study the timing of climate’s mental health impacts since they vary so substantially; while we might see anxiety and stress leading up to climate disasters, we could also see trauma years after.
Last summer, I interned with the UNFCCC’s Adaptation division, and I spent several months reviewing nationally determined contributions, national adaptation plans (NAPs), and national communications of countries to analyze what climate sensitive health risks and health adaptation strategies are being discussed most often. The findings showed that mental health is being overlooked in national climate plans. It’s very telling that of the 21 countries that have submitted NAPs, only one-third mention mental and psychosocial health as a climate sensitive health risk, and Kiribati is the only country that provides adaptation strategies for this risk.
So what do we do to better prepare for the mental health impacts of climate change? At the bare minimum, there should be more research on this subject as well more side events on it at future COPs. When deciding on mitigation strategies, we should prioritize those with mental health co-benefits. And we should actively consider the disproportionate impact of adverse mental health outcomes on marginalized communities.
At a national level, climate plans should strategize mental health resilience measures, such as increasing access to cognitive-based therapy and crisis counseling, conducting vulnerability assessments and epidemiological studies on the mental health impacts of extreme weather events, and engaging people with nature, which has been shown to improve mental health outcomes. A good example of this is Kiribati’s national adaptation plan, which describes several steps to strengthen healthcare services around mental health, such as strengthening coordination between healthcare practitioners; increasing knowledge of the combined impact of gender-based violence, mental health, and climate change on women; implementing strategies to discuss youth anxiety about the uncertain future of climate change; and evaluating the extent to which family health clinics are trained to address mental health issues as they relate to climate change and gender-based violence.
We need to recognize that the health impacts of climate change aren’t just physical. We need to study the impacts of climate change on mental and psychosocial health. And we need to take action now, incorporating mental health resilience strategies into community-level work, national adaptation plans, and international decision-making. By doing so, we can bring the “invisible” impacts of climate change to light.