From suicide to 'eco-anxiety', climate change spurs mental health crisis

A father and child receive medical attention after the Marine Rescue boat that rescued them from rising floodwaters

A father and child receive medical attention after the Marine Rescue boat that rescued them from rising floodwaters capsized in strong currents, as the state of New South Wales experiences widespread flooding and severe weather, in the suburb of Sackville North in Sydney, Australia, March 23, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

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Mental stresses are growing for families hit by more extreme heat, flooded homes and worries about a hotter planet - but the impacts are little measured so far

By Laurie Goering

LONDON - Intensifying climate change impacts, from fiercer heatwaves to more flooded homes, are driving a growing mental health crisis around the world whose costs are so far underestimated and poorly understood, researchers said on Wednesday.

From more heat-linked suicides in Mexico and the United States to rising "eco-anxiety" among young people worried about their future, large numbers are being affected, said Emma Lawrance, a mental health specialist with the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London.

The effects of planetary heating are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable particularly hard, and could widen existing inequities, warned Lawrance, lead author of a new briefing published by the British university.

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"When we talk about climate change as a health crisis and exacerbating inequalities, I think the mental health piece of the puzzle has been left behind, and it's important we tackle that," she said in an interview.

Early efforts to address the problem range from Australia's decision to allocate public funds for mental health support after devastating bushfires in 2019-2020 to groups like the Good Grief Network, which helps people anxious about climate change learn to cope, partly by encouraging personal or political action.

Aid agencies such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also are training workers to recognise and offer assistance for mental as well as physical distress caused by weather-related crises.

But as climate change impacts - from stronger storms to scarcer food and water in some countries - bring more post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health concerns, action needs to be stepped up, Lawrance said.

"The gap between knowing the impacts and being able to quantify the impacts ... is holding us back," she said.

Across the board, mental health disorders already cost the global economy at least $2.5 trillion a year including through knock-on effects like lost productivity and lower growth, researchers said.

"The deterioration in mental health caused by climate change will carry a significant cost, which is currently not being considered," the briefing paper noted.

The financial burden is already rising in richer nations as well as poorer and more climate-vulnerable parts of the world.

People in Britain whose homes are damaged by floods and storms are 50% more likely to suffer problems such as depression or anxiety - even if they don't have to move out temporarily, found a 2019 study by the National Centre for Social Research.

Fortunately, Lawrance said, rising spending to curb climate-changing emissions could also protect mental health, giving a double benefit.

Planting more carbon-absorbing trees, for instance, can reduce peoples' exposure to severe heat, while better insulating houses can cut both emissions and discomfort, she said.

She warned against dismissing anxiety over climate change as a mental health disorder, arguing that those struggling with it needed help to find practical ways to deal with the issue.

"We don't want to pathologise strong emotional responses to what's happening," Lawrance said. "Taking action is good for the climate - and also for people."

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