Climate

The Hidden Mental Health Impacts Of Climate Change

CREDIT: AP Photo/CX Matiash

The last few months have been unnerving for Laurie Nadel, who lost her Long Beach, New York home in 2012 during the violent onslaught of Superstorm Sandy.

“Although I was calm during the storm itself, in recent months I have had several flashback dreams in which I am standing in my old house as the water breaks in through the floors and the walls,’’ she said. “I wake up screaming or crying.’’

As a professional psychotherapist — and one who runs support groups for survivors of Sandy — Nadel recognizes what is happening as a delayed anxiety reaction not uncommon among those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“It can take three to five years for the psyche to metabolize the overwhelming horror and helplessness of a catastrophic event,’’ she said. “Heavy wind shrieking outside my window triggers gastrointestinal spasms,’’ she said, adding: “I wish my psyche was done metabolizing it by now.”

What Nadel has been experiencing is a thus far little-acknowledged but serious consequence of climate change, the emotional toll carried by survivors in the aftermath of extreme weather events and other natural disasters. These destructive and often deadly events can prompt persistent and often debilitating mental anguish among their victims.

If the planet keeps warming at its current pace, experts predict a steep increase in the number of Americans — and others around the world — who will suffer mental anguish as a result of climate-induced events, such as hurricanes, heat waves, drought, and flooding.

“It will get very bad,’’ said Elizabeth Haase, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who is working on a documentary about the mental health impact of climate change. In this country alone, “we expect that over 200 million Americans will have some mental health problem because of climate change.”

The authors of a new landmark report in the Lancet described mental health disorders as among the most dangerous of the “indirect” health effects of global warming.

The report, which was published Tuesday by the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, said that victims of natural disasters often suffer elevated levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD, as well as “a distressing sense of loss, known as solastalgia, that people experience when their land is damaged and they lose amenity and opportunity.’’ Moreover, “these effects will fall disproportionately on those who are already vulnerable, especially for indigenous peoples and those living in low resource settings,’’ the authors wrote. These effects not only include the emotional reaction to physical illness and destruction of property, but involuntary “displacement” that forces people to move elsewhere in order to survive.

The Lancet report said that experts already have identified such reactions in people who have experienced floods, and even among those suffering from slow-developing events, such as prolonged droughts. The report noted that emotional impacts include chronic distress and even increased incidence of suicide. “Even in high-income regions where the humanitarian crisis might be less, the impact on the local economy, damaged homes and economic losses may persist for years after,’’ the Lancet report said.

Similarly, an earlier report released in 2012 by the National Wildlife Federation’s Climate Education Program and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — which focused only on the mental health effects of climate change in the United States — predicted a sharp rise in mental and social disorders resulting from climate change-related events in the coming years. These effects included depression and anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, suicide, and widespread outbreaks of violence.

The NWF report said the elderly, the poor, members of the military, and children were among the most vulnerable. It compared the climate anxiety children are experiencing today to the stress suffered by American and Russian children over the nuclear bomb threat of the 1950s Cold War era. Moreover, it said that the nation’s counselors, trauma specialists, and first responders currently are ill-equipped to cope.

“When you have an environmental insult, the burden of mental health disease is far greater than the physical,” said Steven Shapiro, a Baltimore psychologist and former chair of the program on climate change for Psychologists for Social Responsibility. “I am truly dissatisfied with the role mental health professionals of all ilks have been playing in climate change issues in our nation, and beyond. If we don’t develop collectivist means to deter the harmful processes stemming from how our minds operate, we are in trouble,” he added.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many Americans also are in denial about the health consequences of global warming. A national survey conducted in October, 2014 by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that seven in 10 respondents said they had given the issue little or no thought. Moreover, with the exception of respiratory problems and extreme weather-related injuries and death, fewer than 5 percent identified any of the other health consequences of climate change, including mental health.

“We don’t like to talk about mental health in general,’’ Haase said. “We don’t like losers. When we see someone suffering, no matter how unjust the cause, we tend to think ‘they must have done something to contribute.'” Hasse added, however, that this is beginning to change as people start to have “direct experiences of climate change.”

Experts have paid considerable attention to the physical results of climate-related events, but “we must not forget that people who are physically affected by climate change will also be suffering from the emotional fallout of what has happened to them,’’ said Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist who co-authored the NWF report. “And the psychological damage is not only over what is happening now, but what is likely to happen in the future.’’

To be sure, many people already are feeling some pre-traumatic climate anxiety, according to Haase.

“Right now, we are all living with the dread that something bad could come randomly, suddenly, or insidiously,’’ she said. “We have many models for this kind of anxiety: things like living under a military dictatorship or with domestic violence, living with the risk of a cancer relapse or the outbreak of a disease like the Ebola virus, or living close to a nuclear reactor, a wildfire area, or, as in the case of Iceland, chronic volcanic activity. With chronic pre-traumatic anxiety, there are things you could do, but you feel powerless and there are forces defeating you. It causes helplessness, depression, and is more likely to pit people against each other than join them in common purpose.”

As a result, some people engage in self-protection, such as hoarding money or living for the moment, or unproductive or obsessive behaviors, Haase said.

“One of my patients compulsively reads about climate change, stays up late with intrusive thoughts of climate events that could hurt him or his loved ones, enacting obsessive-compulsive rituals, such as making to-do lists to try to plan for this future,’’ she said. “Another sabotages one relationship after another by refusing his lovers children because he could not bear to bring children into a life of such suffering.”

A healthier response to pre-climate anxiety — any anxiety, really — is to suppress excess fear, yet feel enough of it to be vigilant, Haase said. “In Iceland, every citizen lives with the daily risk of a major volcanic eruption,” she said. “It frightens them enough to monitor volcanic activity every day, but they suppress enough fear to take this information the way we take the weather report.”

However, if the world’s nations fail to mitigate the growing dangers of a warming planet, “we will have to deal with the reality that we are living in unpredictable, unstable and volatile times when it comes to climate change,’’ Nadel said.

Otherwise, “with climate change comes everything else that leads to depression and anxiety,’’ Haase said. “This means possible loss of your home, change of your job…health issues. People have trouble thinking through the…steps to get to the awareness of this: ‘I will lose things.’ ‘I will struggle to replace things.’ ‘Other systems in my life will fail.’ ‘And my stress level will rise.'”

Marlene Cimons, a former Los Angeles Times Washington reporter, is a freelance writer who specializes in science, health, and the environment.