Climate Change Negatively Impacts Mental Health, Study Finds

Climate change-related extreme weather and increasing temperatures associated with higher rates of mental health challenges.

Shannon Peters
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A recent study, led by Nick Obradovich, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, investigates the impact of climate change on mental health. The results of the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest exposure to extreme weather, higher average temperatures, and tropical cyclones all increase the likelihood of poorer mental health. The authors write:

“Given the vital role that sound mental health plays in personal, social, and economic wellbeing—as well as in the ability to address pressing personal and social challenges—our findings provide added evidence that climatic changes pose substantial risks to human systems.”

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Research suggests that climate change-related weather events (e.g., increasing frequency of natural disasters, rising temperatures) are associated with poorer physical health, symptoms of depression and PTSD, and increased rates of psychiatric hospital visits and suicide. Individuals with lower socioeconomic status or preexisting mental health conditions are even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“Social, economic, and physical systems are critical determinants of psychological wellbeing. By disrupting these systems, climate change is likely to exacerbate known risk factors for mental disorders,” write the authors.

The researchers note that studies commonly investigate the effects of discrete climate change-related events and extreme weather conditions, but population-based studies about the general impacts of climate change are needed. Therefore, the authors studied “the relationship between historical climatic conditions and the mental health of 2 million randomly sampled US residents between 2002 and 2012.”

Specifically, they examined the effects of extreme weather conditions, multiyear warming, and tropical cyclones. The authors obtained mental health related information (i.e., whether individuals reported having any days of “not good” mental health in the previous month) from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).

Findings suggest a 1 °C increase in average maximum temperatures is correlated with a 2% point increase in mental health challenges. The researchers also find that average monthly maximum temperatures above 30 °C (86 °F), versus temperatures between 10 °C and 15 °C (50-59 °F), increases the probability of experiencing mental health challenges by 1% point. They also find a 2% point increase in mental health challenges for months with more than 25 days of precipitation, compared to months with no precipitation. The authors explain:

“Putting scale to the magnitude of this estimated relationship, a uniform shift from monthly temperatures between 25 °C and 30 °C to averages greater than 30 °C, if extrapolated across the current population of the United States over a 30-d [30 day] period, would produce almost 2 million additional individuals reporting mental health difficulties.”

Adverse effects of higher temperatures were more significant for low-income individuals and women. The authors note these findings were in the context of the US, a wealthy country that has a temperate climate. The mental health effects of climate change on less resourced countries in less temperate climates are likely more severe.

The researchers also investigated the mental health of individuals impacted by Hurricane Katrina. They find, “Katrina exposure increased the occurrence of mental health issues by approximately 4% points compared with nondisaster areas.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published a report projecting the atmosphere will warm to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates. The authors note that humans may use technology to adapt to warmer climates and engage in resiliency efforts and psychological coping that could reduce the projected impact of global warming on mental health. However, they conclude:

“Ultimately, if observed relationships from the recent past persist, added climate change may amplify the society-wide mental health burden in the face of the acute environmental threats produced by warming in natural systems.”

 

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Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Paulus, M. P., & Rahwan, I. (2018). Empirical evidence of mental health risks posed by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences115(43), 10953-10958. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1801528115 (Link)

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Shannon Peters
MIA Research News Team: Shannon Peters is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston and has a master’s degree in mental health counseling. She is particularly interested in exploring the impacts of medicalization and pathologizing the experiences of individuals who have been affected by trauma. She is engaged in research on the effects of institutional corruption and financial conflicts of interest on research and practice.

6 COMMENTS

  1. We ALL need to be reminded of an old mnemonic for the progression of college degrees, from bachelor’s,
    then masters, then doctorate, i.e.,: B.S., M.S. Ph.D.
    In plain Modern American English:
    Bull Shit, More (of the) Same, Piled Higher & Deeper….
    It continues to amaze me how truly STOOPID people can be, who have advanced college degrees.
    A person who has ANY college degree proves they know WHAT to think, (to achieve the degree).
    But that’s NO EVIDENCE that they know HOW TO THINK.
    That’s enough creative writing for today, I’m going back to sleep.
    Alexandria Occasional-Cortex says the world will end in 12 years, and I wanna be well-rested….
    I rest me case….

  2. In other words, yes, “human activity” has, and continues to, effect the Global environment, weather, climate, and biosphere. But “crisis”? That part is HOAX. Yes, there is massive global-scale pollution. We’ve turned the world’s oceans into toilet bowls. The ENVIRONMENTAL movement is decades old, and shows every sigh of only increasing. Globally, we are moving AWAY from fossil fuels, and Towards solar & renewables. We are moving in the RIGHT direction faster than we are moving in the WRONG direction. Look where the world was 100 years ago, and the HUGE technological advancement since. You think we WON’T do better the next 100 years?
    The whole “global warming”/global climate change” HOAX is media hype, and forced hysteria. For profit and social control. A scared population is easier to control and manipulate. Go ahead, everybody. Pillory me.
    I can handle it. I’m wearing my MAGA hat. TRUMP 2020! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN AND AGAIN!