Research consistently shows that systems such as housing, food access, and immigration are and will continue to be affected by the changing climate. As climate change has a wide sphere of influence, it may not come as a surprise to learn that it has very real consequences for human mental health as well.
These impacts are both direct and indirect, evident in the physical environment as well as the mental and social landscape around the world. But until recently, there has not been a lot of discussion about how climate change will impact the mental and emotional health of humans.
UPMC recently hosted a conference titled “The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health and Community Wellbeing,” where mental health professionals around the country were able to learn and discuss the complexities of these intersecting issues. Not long after, a series of reports by Allegheny Front and Environmental Health News outlined the environmental and mental health struggles faced by Pittsburgh residents, and how mental health professionals are hoping to help.
The impacts of climate change on mental health
In general, stress about climate change itself contributes to negative mental health outcomes. The number of people expressing worry about the changing climate is growing, and this constant level of stress can manifest in feelings of grief, sadness, or anger, as well as conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition to the mental burden of worrying about human-induced climate change, its physical consequences are taking their toll on the human brain. Dr. David Pollack, a presenter at the UPMC conference, outlined the neurological impacts of climate change events such as extreme heat and air pollution. With rising temperatures can come increases in aggressive behavior and depression. For people taking psychiatric medications, extreme heat can upset the body’s regulatory system and could even decrease the drug’s efficacy.
Air pollution and the associated struggle to breathe can result in panic attacks and anxiety. The brain inflammation that comes from breathing polluted air for prolonged periods may also lead to increased rates of mental illnesses surfacing in adulthood. For regions like Pittsburgh, with a history of high air pollution exposure, these findings are especially relevant.
Ingesting neurotoxins such as lead—another issue historically afflicting Pittsburgh—results in developmental challenges for children. It can also alter their personalities, increasing neuroticism and decreasing agreeableness and conscientiousness. By the time they become adults, these traits could manifest as mental health issues.
These effects are just a few examples of how the changing climate is affecting mental health in people of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, and ethnic groups. But not everyone will be affected in the same way.
Impact on marginalized communities
For historically marginalized or disenfranchised communities, climate change is another stressor to deal with, intensified by issues such as racism and poverty. As more research demonstrates that people most affected by climate change are not the ones driving it, it is critical to recognize the interconnection between environmental justice issues and climate issues, especially where mental health is concerned.
Due to the United States’ history of discriminatory housing policies, marginalized communities remain built on land that is less safe and desirable than their counterparts with higher generational wealth. Issues such as risk of exposure to chemical emissions or neurotoxins are common in these communities. In Pittsburgh, there are more children of color with higher blood lead levels than white children, and Black and Brown children are more likely to experience lead poisoning, which can lead to the negative mental health outcomes already discussed.
These negative mental health outcomes, such as PTSD or aggressive behavior, are compounded by the stress that marginalized communities already face. Research demonstrates that air pollution spikes disproportionately affected the mental health of victims of poverty, namely children. These intersecting variables create a sense of helplessness.
What can we do?
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the daunting task of combatting climate change—or even simply beginning to think about climate change itself. Public health professionals are just starting to assess the relationship between the changing climate and mental health issues. However, there are a few strategies to empower individuals to take their future into their own hands.
Be proactive. There are a range of actions, big or small, to be taken. Creating an emergency kit for inclement weather events, discussing your anxieties with close family or friends, and mobilizing with local organizations are all different things to do that can cultivate a sense of preparedness and self-efficacy.
Co-create solutions with local marginalized groups. At UPMC’s conference, Fred Brown, President of the Forbes Funds, emphasized the importance of recognizing the different perceptions of mental health in various communities. For change to truly be transformational, he said, it has to be co-created. It is vital to connect people’s ideas to the resources necessary to make them a reality, and therefore to power.
Take time to enjoy nature. Spending time in nature has plenty of health benefits, both physical and mental. Exposure to nature can also motivate kinder and more generous behavior towards people and the environment around them. Dr. Mary Beth Mannarino of Chatham University explained the importance of distinguishing “positive” from “negative” nature at the conference. While there may be aspects of nature that evoke horror and sadness as climate change processes accelerate, focusing on the beauty and wonder of nature that remains can be a healthy coping mechanism.
Contribute to a community of care and empathy. Dr. Ken Thompson, medical director of the Squirrel Hill Health Center, brought up the idea of solidarity care, which empowers members of a community to heal each other in times of collective crisis. Cultivating and sharing an awareness of local climate and mental health issues (especially as they relate to environmental justice) can build trust and a sense of reciprocity with neighbors. This approach can also make it easier to organize for tangible change in the community.
Connecting the Dots between Climate, Equity, Economy, and Health
The research presented by UPMC and Allegheny Front offer a critical reminder of the interconnectedness between climate, equity, economy, and health – an intersection those of us working in the green building industry are seeing now more than ever. GBA and its members work to ensure that every building and every community is sustainable so that every person can thrive. By promoting safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly communities, we aim to transform the built environment into an economically just, culturally equitable, and ecologically vibrant set of places that will live on for generations. If our vision comes to fruition, every person in every community will have their basic needs fulfilled so that they can address mental health concerns in healthy and personally fulfilling ways. This is our hope as we just closed out yet another year marked with racial injustices, climate turmoil, and an ongoing public health crisis. In the meantime, we encourage you to learn more about this topic, care for yourselves and your neighbors, and take the time to be in nature this winter season.
For more resources and to get involved in local initiatives that address the mental health impacts of climate change, check out The Allegheny Front’s series—in particular, the articles “How to address the looming crisis of climate anxiety” and “Seeking solutions: Pollution and mental health in western Pennsylvania.”