What Are the Mental Health Effects of Climate Change?

Peter M. Yellowlees, MBBS, MD


April 07, 2016

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This is the Medscape Psychiatry Minute. I'm Dr Peter Yellowlees.

Human-caused climate change, with global warming, is occurring. There is no longer any doubt that heat waves are more intense and longer, and floods and storms more frequent, as the world's temperature and sea levels rise. Much has been written about the potential health impact of extreme weather events around the world, such as infectious diseases, but what about the impact of climate change on the mental health of individuals and populations?

A team of investigators from Wellington, New Zealand, have reviewed this topic and concluded that extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and storms, increase the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.[1] The authors described more significant indirect effects, however, that will arise primarily from damage to land, infrastructure, and community functioning, leading to migration, armed conflict, and other violence. They noted that these effects will be unevenly distributed and will be disproportionately affecting disadvantaged people, putting those with chronic mental illness at greater risk.

What can we do as psychiatrists? The authors suggest raising awareness of the importance of climate change, so pass this message on. We can advocate for the most vulnerable, as seen after Hurricane Katrina, where the poorest citizens were unable to afford to escape New Orleans and ending up camping at the football stadium. We must certainly research and educate about prevention and remediation of the impact of climate change and at the individual level, we can mitigate the effects by reducing our own carbon footprint.

Most important, though, as individuals and through our professional societies and community involvement, we must stop being in denial. We must learn about climate change so that we can prepare for life changes that will affect our children, our patients, and ourselves.

Thank you for listening to this Medscape Psychiatry Minute. Do enjoy your practice.


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