Is mental health linked to the climate crisis?

Both issues require immediate and sustained attention

Children playing in the southern New South Wales town of Bega where they camped after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires, on December 31, 2019. Wildfires will rise sharply in coming decades due to global warming, and governments are ill-prepared for the death and destruction caused, the UN warned on February 23. AFP
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The greatest threat of our time is climate change. Are we fighting back, escaping or are we frozen in the headlights? Fight, flight and freeze are the primary human reactions to perceived threats. Fighting back or running away makes sense, but freezing is counterintuitive. Freezing up leaves us immobile in the face of danger.

With a true fighting spirit, the recent Al Sidr Environmental Film Festival in Abu Dhabi showed several award-winning films about aspects of the climate crisis.

Raising awareness of a problem is the first step towards a response. The films shed light on water pollution, habitat loss, displaced populations and more. One film in particular, The Magnitude of All Things, got me thinking about the mental health implications of climate change.

Back in 1991, towards the end of the Cold War, the big fear was nuclear war. The American Psychiatric Association was concerned about the mental health implications of this existential threat, so they put together a task force to explore the "psycho-social impacts of nuclear developments".

A large part of the study focused on children. In the final report, the team concluded that the threat of nuclear war was damaging child and adolescent personality development and mental health. The psychiatrists felt that the children's doubts about the continuity of human existence led to higher levels of impulsivity and escapism. The psychiatrists predicted that generations might attempt to live in fantasy worlds fuelled by drugs and alcohol because the real world was too painful.

We need to ask the same questions about the environmental crisis. What effect will the threat of climate change, species extinctions and habitat loss have on the developing minds of today's children? Is there a link between the mental health crisis and the climate crisis?

Solastalgia is the sense of psychological pain we feel in response to environmental change

To be sure, we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, which is taking a hefty toll on children and young adults. In November 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic began, the UN issued a news release stressing the urgent need to tackle the increase in child and adolescent mental health problems.

In some nations, this includes an increase in the hospital treatment of children and adolescents for severe mental health problems. In Japan, in 2020, the Ministry of Education reported the highest rate of child suicide since records began. There, the leading cause of death for people aged between 10 and 14 is suicide. The mental health crisis is very real.

There are several ways the climate crisis appears to affect mental health. The American Psychological Association published a report in 2009 titled The Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. It describes how climate change gives rise to eco-anxiety, eco-anger and eco-guilt. Anxiety, anger and guilt are all common symptoms of depression. There is also discussion about the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after extreme weather events. As such events become more frequent, rates of PTSD are likely to rise.

Beyond these rather obvious connections, there is also the idea of "solastalgia". Coined by the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, this portmanteau blends the words "solace" and "nostalgia". Solastalgia has come to mean the sense of psychological pain we feel in response to environmental change, especially environments to which we have a personal connection. Imagine how a resident of Al Ain (the spring) might feel if the spring dried up or how a resident of Abu Dhabi might feel if the gazelle became extinct.

Our sense of self is often connected to the natural environments we grew up in; if they hurt, we hurt.

Another subtle link between mental health and climate crises is the idea of species loneliness. A landmark report published by the UN in 2019 suggested that about one million animal and plant species were at risk of extinction – many have gone for good since then.

We know from decades of research that exposure to biodiversity is good for well-being – the greater the diversity the better. However, it could be that the opposite is also true. As parts of our planet become increasingly less biodiverse, we are becoming lonelier as a species and perhaps unhappier. This species loneliness also coincides with growing concerns about social isolation and actual loneliness. For example, in 2018, the UK government appointed its first minister for loneliness in response to the public health impact of a loneliness epidemic.

The connection between climate change and the increase in child and adolescent mental health issues is probable. Either way, both problems require immediate and sustained attention.

Fight, flight and freeze are emotional reactions that only get us so far, and at times may even do more harm than good. Complex social issues such as climate and mental health crises require thoughtful and creative responses rather than primitive reactivity.

Published: March 10, 2022, 9:00 AM