How should we address the psychological impacts of climate change?

Australian Psychological Society

In order to prepare our communities for a world in which our climate looks and feels very different, we need to invest in strong psychological support to build resilience in our communities.

The United Nations estimates that we have until just 2030 to prevent irreversible damage to our planet due to the impacts of climate change.

We’re already experiencing drastic shifts in our climate, including an increase in floods and bushfires, record-high temperatures, irreversible damage to delicate ecosystems and risk of extinction of flora and fauna that’s crucial to maintaining our planet’s biodiversity.

Understandably, these situations often cause great levels of distress in the community.

Since 2019, it’s estimated that 80 per cent of Australians have experienced some form of extreme weather disaster. Of these people, 1 in 5 say the event had a “major or moderate” impact on their mental health.

“People are exposed to the degradation of our climate on an almost daily basis, be that via the news/social media or through their first-hand experiences,” says Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe, President, APS. “That’s bound to have an impact on their mental resilience.”

Australians living in rural, regional and remote areas are more prone to these climate disasters – and they’re the communities who have less access to mental health support.

“Getting more psychology services into these communities is critical. Not only are they experiencing the challenges of extreme weather events – such as losing their homes – but in many cases these disasters also directly impact their livelihoods. The mental health impacts of climate change in these regions are often complex and layered.

“This is why the work of our Disaster Response Network (DRN) is so critical. These volunteer psychologists, of which there are over 800, support frontline and emergency service workers who are working in disaster affected communities.”

The DRN was initially set up in response to the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. In the past 18 months, the APS has provided 624 wellbeing checks for front line workers responding to climate disaster and has seen a 17% increase in interest for disaster response training.

“We provide this service to support the people who are supporting devastated communities,” says Davis-McCabe. “We are extremely grateful to the government for its continued investment in this important program – it’s helping communities to rebuild and bounce back stronger.”

Impacts of climate change

Climate change has both direct and indirect health impacts, says Lin Oke OAM, President of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Australia’s peak body on health and climate change.

“As it gets warmer, we are seeing more extreme weather events, which bring risk of illness, injury and death, and are often accompanied with anxiety and trauma in communities,” she says.

She references research showing a surge in what’s called ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’, which occurs when people display symptoms consistent with PTSD in anticipation of climate events.

“As it gets warmer, we’re also seeing insect-borne diseases spread… and more emerging zoonotic diseases. As rain patterns change and temperatures get higher, we’re seeing inconsistent and reduced yields in the agricultural sector and more water scarcity, which has major implications for our food systems, but also for the mental wellbeing of rural communities.”

These climate disasters have both short and long-term impacts, she adds.

“Let’s take the bushfires of 2019-20. [They] had very severe impacts on our health while they were happening – 33 people died in the fires, 429 died due to bushfire smoke exposure, and thousands more were hospitalised. Over 3,000 homes were lost, and people’s mental wellbeing was severely affected.

“The health effects of a major disaster like this do not dissipate when the fires are put out. Towns need to rebuild lost infrastructure. Some families and communities need to wait a long time for their homes to be rebuilt, for the economy to bounce back, or for the sense of loss to become manageable.”

Each of these social determinants can have major impacts on people’s health, she says.

“Many experience mental distress and illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD in the wake of the [climate] event. While we have known about climate change for decades, the mental health impacts are only just beginning to be meaningfully recognised.”

Professor Ben Newell, Professor of Psychology and Director of the UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response, agrees with this. He says there’s not yet enough research to fully understand the impacts of climate change on our mental health.

“I have a new PhD student in the Institute for Climate Risk and Response, and I’m working with a clinical colleague of mine who’s done lots of work on anxiety, rumination and depression, and we’re just starting to really dig into this literature.

“The concept of climate anxiety has become very popular…. but the understanding of what’s underpinning it, how to treat it and whether we should think of it as a pathology is unclear at the moment.”

One challenge, he says, is that we don’t yet have a uniform set of diagnostic language or research to fully comprehend the scope of mental health challenges related to the climate.

“There are lots of terms out there. There’s climate worry, eco-stress, climate anxiety, climate anger, solastalgia. So that’s where my PhD student is starting – by looking into the different concepts that are out there and asking, ‘Are these all tapping into the same thing or are there a diversity of issues?’ Because that has a fundamental impact on how we might go about treating people.”

How can we support individuals?

Professor Newell is wary of offering up too many solutions at this stage, as too much is still up in the air, he says.

“There’s debate in the literature, for example, about whether having some climate anxiety is actually a useful thing to drive a healthy empathetic response and lead people to realise this is an urgent thing to act on,” he says.

“There was also an interesting exchange in Nature Climate Change last year between some researchers talking about the best strategies to deal with climate anxiety. One set of authors were arguing that we should be giving people personal strategies that might reduce their anxiety… concrete things like, ‘If you’re worried about getting flooded, you should put your belongings on a higher shelf.’

Health professionals and leaders have a unique role to play in advocating for climate solutions. The health community is uniquely trusted to talk about the health impacts of climate change, and the health benefits of climate solutions. – Lin Oke OAM

“And then other researchers were saying, ‘Well, that’s not really what it’s about. When people are explicitly expressing some sort of climate anxiety – say they live in a city [and are less likely to see climate disasters first-hand than those in rural/regional areas], they’re not necessarily expressing anxiety about the direct impact on them. They’re expressing a broader anxiety about what the impact is going to be on the wider society, on the natural world, on biodiversity. They might be worried about vulnerable people.”

That’s not to say that individual interventions won’t help. In many instances, they could.

Oke refers to research which suggests the use of positive coping strategies such as “reducing their own footprint, becoming a voice for change, supporting their peers, and keeping away from maladaptive coping strategies, like avoidance or ‘doomisim.'”

“Health professionals and leaders have a unique role to play in advocating for climate solutions. The health community is uniquely trusted to talk about the health impacts of climate change, and the health benefits of climate solutions. If our communities understand that climate solutions mean cleaner air and water, healthier food, more peaceful societies and better health outcomes, then we’ve done our job!”

What needs to be done at a broader level

As part of its pre-budget submission, which outlines key pieces of advocacy work for the year ahead, the APS is calling for government investment to address these critical issues.

“In young people in particular, government inaction is a key driver of their climate-related anxieties, so the APS is working closely with the government to advise where the most impactful investments of money, time and energy can be made to have the most positive impact,” says Dr Davis-McCabe.

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