An international, interdisciplinary team of researchers has published a 53-page report in The Lancet on the spreading health and mental health impacts of climate change.
With respect to psychological issues in particular, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change summarized:
Climate change affects mental health through various pathways by inflicting natural disasters on human settlements and by causing anxiety-related responses, and later chronic and severe mental health disorders, and implications for mental health systems. These effects will fall disproportionately on individuals who are already vulnerable, especially for indigenous people and those living in low-resource settings. Additionally, individuals might feel a distressing sense of loss, known as solastalgia, that people experience when their land is damaged and they lose amenity and opportunity.
Elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders have been reported in populations who have experienced flooding and during slow-developing events such as prolonged droughts; impacts include chronic distress and 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 can persist for years after natural disasters. Government and agencies now emphasise psychological and psychosocial interventions within disaster response and emergency management. Social adaptation processes can mediate public risk perceptions and understanding, psychological and social impacts, coping responses, and behavioural adaptation.
In an article about the topic and the report on ClimateProgress, a Columbia University psychiatrist said, “Right now, we are all living with the dread that something bad could come randomly, suddenly, or insidiously. 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.”
A Psychiatric Times article discussed the role of climate in affecting human psychological states in historical terms. “As historian Andrew Wear has noted, the Hippocratic tradition spoke of the soil and human beings in similar medical terms, understanding each to stand in a natural correspondence with one another, a correspondence that also implied a cause-and-effect relationship.”
Watts, Nick, W Neil Adger, Paolo Agnolucci, Jason Blackstock, Peter Byass, Wenjia Cai, Sarah Chaytor, et al. “Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health.” The Lancet. Accessed July 1, 2015. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60854-6. (Full text with registration)
The Hidden Mental Health Impacts Of Climate Change (ClimateProgress, June 23, 2015)
Can Climate Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health? A View From History (Psychiatric Times, June 23, 2015)