When the United Nations called climate change a “code red for humanity” on Aug. 9, my stomach dropped.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was used to “smoke day” school cancellations, when the air quality was so bad we couldn’t go outside. I knew that it was hot late into October, and that California had experienced a devastating drought for the majority of my adolescence.
I gaslit myself for a while for feeling a constant sense of panic. I couldn’t explain the brain fog I had whenever the air was smoky and the immense guilt I felt during every shower.
It’s hard to live in a world where news titles and art exhibits serve as constant reminders of the imminent consequences of climate change. When 100 companies comprise 71% of the Earth’s emissions, living with the weight of potential climate disaster because of non- human entities’ actions inevitably leads to mental health consequences.
It seems that everyone is quick to label climate change as a problem, but not the mental effects that come with it.
According to a study done by the American Public Health Association on the mental effects of Hurricane Katrina, up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffered from depression after Hurricane Katrina. The same study reported 49% of all survivors developed an anxiety or mood disorder, and 1 in 6 developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, after natural disasters is when it is hardest to get mental health counselling. Destruction of property, interruption in schooling and relocation place a severe amount of stress on the victims. This disruption of services during such a crucial time period further harms those who are most in need.
There is no easy solution to this problem, because such corporations are still dragging their feet when it comes to making effective change. As long as our society values money over sustainability, our planet will never heal.
Normally, I’m embarrassed over how quickly seeing information on climate change can impact my mood. Within seconds, my stomach sinks, my face flushes and I can’t breathe. Even when my family was evacuated briefly a couple weeks ago due to fire threat, my parents waited days to tell me because they knew the severe effect it would have on me.
When I spoke with my therapist about the constant fear and hopelessness I feel to get help, she just said “me too.”
This is not her fault, but that situation reflects the overall lack of information on how climate change can affect the mind. As climate change becomes an increasingly dangerous issue, there needs to be more mental support.
According to an Italian study from Frontiers in Psychology, the lack of information due to the complexity of this issue makes it difficult to research the effects on our mental health.
However, the few studies that have been done provide new terms to explain these emotions. Eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, eco-logical grief, biospheric concern and eco-psychology are the building blocks for these more complex studies and discussions.
Like everything in our society, studies on climate change expose the weaknesses in America’s overarching systems. A Princeton study from 2020 proved that climate change disproportionately affects those of lower socioeconomic status, which in turn impacts the accessibility of healthcare. It also exposed how Black and Indigenous people of color are less likely to receive equal aid to white Americans and more likely to be affected by environmental racism.
Furthermore, Indigenous people face a disproportionately greater mental health threat. Not only do Native Americans reside in areas more susceptible to disaster, in many tribes eco-spirituality is a large part of spiritual and religious life.
Climate change is damaging the health of our planet and of our people. We have to start talking about the mental health effects that come with climate disaster to be better prepared to face it and recover.