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Climate Change: It's Not All in Your Head

7/29/2014 3:46:00 PM

Tags: climate change, mental health

brain

The affects of climate change can be harmful to the earth—and your mind.

Climate change clearly alters physical landscapes; once abundant fields turn barren in times of drought while large chunks of ice have been documented breaking off glaciers and dramatically splashing into the sea.

But considering the disturbances climate change can have on the mind is much more abstract. That hasn’t stopped a few researchers from beginning to assess the affects climate change has on mental health. Much of the findings are thanks to psychiatric epidemiologist Helen Berry of the University of Canberra in Australia, who has looked at how farmers and youth have dealt with consequences stemming from climate change. Not surprisingly Berry found that, “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.”

However research into the emerging field is an uphill battle for a variety of reasons. Aside from the fact that there are still people out there who don’t believe climate change is occurring, for those who do, linking it to mental distress is tricky. There are a number of factors ranging from someone’s predisposition to depression to what people are used to in terms of climate—while farmers experiencing a drought will be negatively affected, those in urban areas may enjoy rainless days. Additionally, securing funding for research hasn’t been easy. Most funders want to see quantifiable results which aren’t always possible in mental health studies, let alone research that's tied to the complicated matter of climate change, which Berry suspects will need to be conducted on a very long-term basis.    

Regardless, the field is making some inroads and with that comes an expanded vocabulary. Glenn Albrecht is a professor in environmental studies at the University of Newcastle, also in Australia, who has coined solastalgia defined as “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.” Other terms include endemophilia (the love people feel for what’s special about where they're from or live) and soliphilia (a positive state that is a result of collaboration and healing). In fact soliphilia may be the best antidote for solastalgia; Berry has found that when people work together on environmental activities like restoring a garden, their anxiety decreases.

In the U.S., the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica recently teamed up and produced a report entitled “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change” which cites consequences such as PTSD and depression. It concludes that vulnerable groups such as those living under the poverty line will likely experience more climate related stress. The report also urges people and communities to prepare for the impact of climate change; by strengthening social ties, integrating mental health awareness with disaster preparedness, and getting organizations to work together, some of the negative ramifications can be assuaged.

Image by Eduardo Mueses, licensed under Creative Commons.



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