Our mental health is linked to our environment

Justin Thomas underscores the effects of animal extinction on human mental health and well-being

A hallmark of this epoch is the rapid rate at which animal species are becoming extinct. Rodger Bosch / AFP
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We are living in a geologic epoch informally known as the “Anthropocene”. Scientists from the Anthropocene Working Group will meet later this year to consider the evidence before arriving at a formal decision about the epoch's name. What is being discussed and evaluated, is the degree to which human (anthropos) activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

In addition to the geological impact we have made on the planet, I would also like to see more discussion about what impact the present state of the planet is having on us. In other words, what are the psychological implications of actually living in the Anthropocene?

One hallmark of this epoch is the rapid rate at which animal species are becoming extinct. Species have always gone extinct, but not at the current rate. Since the 1500s there have been at least 870 official extinctions recorded. Within living memory, we have witnessed the functional extinction of the Baiji river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga (a type of zebra), the passenger pigeon, the western black rhino and many more.

What is particularly painful about these more recent losses is that these species went extinct after the popularisation of photography. We can gaze upon photos of these beautiful creatures and see exactly just what we have lost. In psychological theories, loss – especially avoidable loss – gives rise to sadness, grief and even depression.

There are now so many creatures on the endangered species list that some scientists are suggesting that we are on the precipice of a mass extinction – when more than 75 per cent of known species die out. The last mass extinction was about 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs vanished. In psychological theories, the threat of loss gives rise to anxiety, fear and even panic.

Another characteristic of our Anthropocene epoch is the idea of anthropogenic climate change. The wide dissemination of information and ideas concerning global warming have given birth to the term “eco-anxiety”. This is when concerns about climate change escalate into extreme and maladaptive levels of emotional distress. This could take the form of excessive guilt about our own ecological transgressions, extreme anger about the misbehaviour of others, and persistent and unhealthy worry about the prospect of environmental catastrophes.

In 2011, the American Psychological Association published a paper titled The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change. This article aimed to spell out some of the likely psychological consequences of climate change. The paper argued that individuals experiencing extreme weather events – cyclones, floods, droughts and heatwaves – will often be traumatised by such experiences. It suggested that even witnessing the devastation of extreme weather events via the media could negatively impact emotional well-being, especially where there is uncertainty about the future safety of their own locale. In short, climate change has clear emotional and psychosocial impacts; it is as much about psychology as it is about biodiversity and geophysics.

Psychological well-being has a reciprocal relationship with the health and integrity of the natural environment. If our environment hurts, ultimately we hurt. Our natural environment makes important contributions to our mental health and well-being. Efforts aimed at preventing mental illness and promoting psychological health would be wise to align themselves with environmental conservation initiatives.

When the hammour is no more, how will you feel? When the Arabian leopard goes extinct, how will you feel? When the only place you can see an Arabian oryx is in a zoo, how will you feel?

There is a very real psychological cost to the unsustainable pursuit of happiness. That price is depression, panic and trauma. The Anthropocene is evidence that we can change the world. Can we now change for the better?

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas