It’s no secret that this past year and the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a severe toll on the mental health of people of all ages. The anxiety of the unknown, the isolation, the constant fear of illness and infection, and the stress about economic security (just to begin with) all contribute to a significant negative impact on our emotional and mental well-being. But to add insult to injury, recent research shows that the ongoing climate crisis is also taking a toll on mental health. If we don’t do something soon, we will be dealing with not only a planet struggling for survival but a population of people struggling personally as well.
Considering the dangerous existential threat that climate change poses to our world and the fact that this threat is perpetual, it makes perfect sense that it would impact people on a deep emotional level. Unfortunately, the human brain is not equipped to handle such scary, potentially devastating news for such an extended period of time. And climate change is just that — a scary future full of potential devastation for our world and future generations if we don’t do something to protect our planet, and soon.
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions predicts that as the planet warms, we will experience an increase in the number of storms and an increase in those storms, leading to more potential for devastation from extreme weather events as droughts, floods, and hurricanes. That increased risk for damage and destruction from natural disasters could significantly increase deaths by 2050.
While the physical harm of that threat is very real, so is the danger to our mental and emotional health — one report estimates that 25 to 50 percent of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of an adverse mental health effect. In addition, up to 54 percent of adults and 45 percent of children experience depression after a natural disaster.
Experts are seeing everything from insomnia to depression and increased substance abuse following natural disasters in terms of the mental health side effects. And those effects aren’t just seen with individuals directly impacted by a natural disaster or devastation related to climate change. Simply being exposed to the potential threat to our environment can affect us as well. The very presence of bad news (wildfires, floods, damaging storms, poor air quality, rising sea levels, etc.) or the awareness of an uncertain future can drain us all emotionally and mentally as we try to navigate the future of our planet.
The American Psychiatric Association explains that while most people will fare just fine in the face of a natural disaster, many individuals impacted by these extreme weather events will experience difficulties over time. “The mental health consequences of events linked to a changing global climate include mild stress and distress, high-risk coping behavior such as increased alcohol use and, occasionally, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.”
Beyond the mental health challenges, there’s also the increased risk of job loss, forced relocation, lack of social support, and isolation, all of which can also negatively impact one’s mental health.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Mental Health During the Climate Crisis
While it might sometimes seem as if we’re all destined to suffer as our planet is on a terrifying path in the wrong direction, there are certain steps you can take to take control of your mental health and the climate crisis. It starts with awareness that you are struggling and continues with simple steps to focus on your well-being.
Be Prepared – Make an emergency plan, ensure you have the supplies and survival tools you need, and practice those emergency responses. Make sure your entire family is on the same page in terms of preparing for a natural disaster or climate-related trauma. Sometimes if you are ready and prepared for any situation, both physically and mentally, it can help you experience less stress as you cope with those trying situations.
Focus on Your Health – Take care of yourself every day; exercise, get outside, sleep, eat a balanced diet, meditate, stretch. Focusing on your well-being, physical and emotional, is always important when combating and preventing mental illness.
Stay Connected – Build strong connections with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and continue to support those relationships as a way to create strong social networks and bonds with others.
Keep a Gratitude Journal – Sometimes, it helps reduce stress over potential disaster if you focus on what you are grateful for and what you have in your life. Each day write down something you appreciate or something that brings you joy and dedicate mental energy to those positive aspects of your life, rather than letting negative thoughts or worries dominate all of your headspace.
Get Educated – Learn everything you can about climate change, the potential threats, the evolving risks, and the various ways that you can help. Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more you can be a part of the solution.
Get Involved – While feeling helpless can often cause stress and fear, the opposite is also true – action can empower you and provide hope. Get involved in local or global causes to help combat climate change. Raise awareness, share what you have learned, donate money or time to efforts to protect the planet, and work hard to keep your family and community safe.
Give Yourself a Break – Remember that everyone needs a break, mentally and physically, from time to time. So cut yourself some slack, breathe, take a walk, find ways to unwind and calm your mind, and try to relax. Watching the news 24 hours a day and devouring climate change information might seem like a good idea, but it clearly takes a toll on your mental health, and it’s crucial to take a break and find healthy outlets for your stress every day.