What is climate change doing to our mental health?
About a year ago, I started wondering about the impact of climate change on mental health. After all, depression is already the second leading cause of disability around the world, depression can be kicked off by stress, and watching the ocean inch up to your doorstep or seeing drought destroy your crops and take away your livelihood can be pretty nerve-racking.
I checked the most recent IPCC report. Nothing on mental health. I checked news articles. Nada. I checked the scientific literature, and found a few things, mostly from Australian scientists.
So I headed Down Under, and found a small but dedicated research community. I also found recalcitrant farmers, concerned members of Aboriginal communities, a climate change philosopher, and the beginnings of a new vocabulary.
Research on mental health and climate change in Australia pretty much starts and ends with a very modest and soft-spoken psychiatric epidemiologist, Helen Berry of the University of Canberra. She’s responsible for 27 papers and book chapters published on the subject since 2011. Her studies don’t focus on specific psychiatric diagnoses, but general mental health and well-being. So: How often do you feel distressed? How are you sleeping? Do you talk to others about your distress or do you keep it to yourself?
Berry has documented increased levels of distress in young people in drought-affected areas, and in farmers as well. The farmers she’s studied have shown a strong reluctance to use mental health services. She’s also looked at the effect of climate change on Aboriginal communities.
“When you think about what climate change does, it basically increases the risk of weather-related disasters of one sort or another,” she said. “What happens from a psychological point of view is people get knocked down. Whenever people are knocked down, they have to get up again and start over. And the more that happens, the more difficult it is to keep getting up.”
I spoke to elders from several Aboriginal communities in New South Wales who all told of a general sense of unease. All have noticed something — the absence of snow in the winter, the disappearance of rivers. One woman said, “I feel like the world is ending, that’s what I think. It’s scary.” Her solace: working in her garden.
That corresponds with what Berry has found in her scientific studies — a sense of despair, but also an enthusiasm for re-connecting with the land.
That’s what James Williams has noticed as well. He’s a member of the Aboriginal community in New South Wales and used to head a local land council. He’s now a caseworker for the state’s Department of Family and Community Services. What people do to the land gets done back to them, he said. “We have a saying: If you look after the land and the rivers, the land and the rivers will look after you.” People in his community see the changes as something brought on them by others who are not looking after the land and rivers. But they’re not angry, according to Williams. They’re frustrated.
Also like Berry, Williams has noticed that when people take action to restore the environment, it energizes them and lessens their anxiety. He points to various Aboriginal groups working on traditional resource management, including burning off the low brush that fuels bush fires.
Berry is studying children as well. In an ongoing study in Queensland, she and her colleagues have found that children with low levels of connectedness — not much family, low involvement in school or other group activities — are at a much higher risk of being traumatized by fires, floods, and the like.
A challenging field
Berry’s line of research has led her to some complicated challenges. As with all things climate change, definitions are difficult. “We all know what a drought is intuitively. It doesn’t rain,” Berry said. “But trying to actually define a drought statistically and measure it, and then go a step further and say who was exposed to that, is a really hard thing to do technically.”
She and her coworkers have found different effects on people’s mental health and well-being depending on the type of drought they experience — very dry periods punctuated by occasional rain, consistent dryness, short sharp droughts, and long droughts that culminate in one or two years of catastrophic drought. In rural areas, the pattern associated with the worst mental health across the whole population was a long period of persistent drought followed by a year or two of especially dry weather.
Berry is also working on a study whose early results suggest that a hot spell of even a few days can have effects that last up to a year — it attacks men’s sense of being capable and strong and competent, and women’s emotional functioning. Again, it’s not simple. If people live somewhere hot to begin with, it looks like even hotter weather is generally well-tolerated — unless it’s really extreme heat relative to what’s normal in that place. And the long droughts that can bankrupt farmers and push some of them over the edge can raise the mood of people in cities, who experience the drought as endless sunny days.
The hardest hit by climate change in Australia so far have been farmers, and they’re a challenge as research subjects, said Berry. “They’re happy to talk about problems having to do with the climate and climate variability, but they don’t like talking about climate change.”
That’s what I found when I visited Reg Kidd on his picture-perfect ranch in New South Wales. When I asked him about climate change, he quoted a popular Australian poem written in 1910 that refers to the country as “a land of droughts and floods.” With one of his cows mooing in the background, he says he believes in climate variability, but hasn’t seen the evidence to prove climate change yet.
He offers up that he’s been on antidepressants at various points in his life, and while he doesn’t think his episodes were related to weather events, he’s seen weather-related depression in other farmers. “They become very withdrawn,” he said. They think they should be able to fight their way through it. “Here they are with something they can’t control around them, and things are going backwards, and it becomes a health issue.”
Kidd and other local farmers have founded a group, “Are You Okay?,” with discussions and buttons to wear to remind them to touch base with their neighbors during tough times and ask them how they’re doing.
And on his own ranch, he’s made changes that could be considered climate mitigation or adaptation. He stores water in vast tanks on his farm. He uses solar panels that generate more electricity than he can use. He’s looked into drought-resistant plants, and he plans his farming and ranching around seasonal weather forecasts.
On top of climate change denial, or at least agnosticism, there’s another challenge. Berry’s mentor, Tony McMichael, recently retired from Australian National University and generally credited as the father of climate change and health research, told me that epidemiologists “by and large prefer to work with health outcomes that are readily measurable and quantifiable, and that’s never easy with mental disorders.”
Both Berry and McMichael say one of the biggest challenges is research funding, especially government funding. The best thing that can be said about the Australian government’s approach to climate change is that it’s crazy. The only time Berry talked above the level of a whisper was when I asked her if research on climate change and mental health was a tough sell to government funding agencies. “The toughest,” she said quickly.
Another big challenge is the scope of the research. “To do this work well is really hard and takes ages, so you need longer funding and more funding than other topics might,” Berry told me. And McMichael noted that ecology doesn’t fit very well into the traditional medical research model. “It affects whole communities and its source is collective, and we have to reframe a number of our ideas about health, disease, survival within that ecological perspective,” he said. It doesn’t seem like real science to the big funding agencies, and there aren’t going to be any single bottom-line answers. “So you don’t get the money,” he said.
With all these challenges, why have Australian scientists taken such an interest? Berry credited McMichael, and McMichael in turn credited several factors. The biggest: Australia has already been hard-hit by climate change. A decade-long bake called the Millennium Drought (which in some form actually lasted from 1995 to 2009) reminded people how bad droughts could be. Farmers culled their herds straight through to the breeding stock. Recent droughts have fostered several dramatic and lethal wildfires, one of which marched right up to the outskirts of Melbourne.
Ultimately, McMichael says he persisted because the work is important. “We need to understand just what the full spectrum of consequences of human-driven climate changes are likely to be. There’s not much recognition beyond the damage that will occur to iconic species and to ecosystems and to tourism and the economy,” he said. “I think if we can paint that picture more fully, it will help motivate the public who for the moment are a bit confused and a bit standoffish about this topic.”
New problems, new words
As for the new vocabulary, that comes from another Aussie, Glenn Albrecht, a former professor who taught philosophy, sustainability, and environmental studies at the University of Newcastle and at Murdoch University. “A genuine philosopher,” he said with a wink, since he has a doctorate in philosophy. His big contribution to the field: solastalgia. That’s “the homesickness when you’re still at home and your home environment is changing around you in ways that you find negative, and that you have very little power over.”
What got him thinking about solastalgia was not climate change, but open-pit mining in New South Wales vast enough to be seen from space. Talking to people who lived nearby, he found they were outraged, and saddened, and that got him thinking about the role that place, land, and landscape play in people’s sense of well-being. It wasn’t nostalgia — that’s for some other place. It’s a longing for home, as what was once familiar becomes unpredictable.
He and his wife came up with the term a few years ago. “It was at the kitchen table, my wife and I sat down and I said I want a word for ‘placealgia,’ and we just worked our way through the most suitable Greek and Latin terms until we came up with solastalgia,” he said.
Sol — from solace, the idea that we take solace from the patterns and rhythms of nature. And -algia, from pain. When the patterns and rhythms of nature, the timing of fruits and flowers and plantings, change, so too do the patterns and rhythms of our minds, he said.
Albrecht has more words up his sleeve. Soliphilia — a state that results in positive energy to collaborate, heal, and work together. Basically, people who see the cumulative damage of climate change and work together to make repairs. He practiced it in his own life by helping to restore a wetland.
And then there’s endemophilia — the love that people have for what’s distinctive about the place they live or come from. I get that one. I’m a New Jersey ex-pat, and I miss everything from the gas tanks of Elizabeth to the horse country near Gladstone to the Jersey shore.
In the few months since my visit, Australia stopped being such a lonely outpost for people studying the mental health effects of climate change. The new IPCC report has a health chapter that deals with the issue (Berry and McMichael were among the authors). The American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica recently released a report on the broad psychological effects of climate change.
So chalk one more health challenge up to climate change. But there is a pearl in the oyster, Berry says. “Climate change and associated weather-related disasters could be such a serious threat that they could actually propel people to come and work together,” she said. Climate change might make people willing to take some kind of concerted action, to do something useful for their community. “That’s the pearl,” she said, “that all this could lead to a growth in social capital — the best thing for mental health.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Correction: This post originally identified Glenn Albrecht as a professor at the University of Newcastle. In fact, he most recently taught at Murdoch University, and he recently retired from there.
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