A webinar on “The mental health burden of climate change” featuring Dr. Emma Lawrance, Dr. Britt Wray, Dr. Elaine Flores and chaired by Dr Julian Eaton was held recently as part of London Climate Action Week. The recording is now available at:
Dr Eaton opened the webinar by commentating that this (both climate change and mental health) is the issue of our time.
If you don’t have time to listen, this series of three blogs will provide some of the highlights:
Dr. Britt Wray: “Mental health burdens of climate change: What are they and what needs to be done?”
Watch from 4:53-22:25
Dr. Britt Wray, PhD is the Human and Planetary Health Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Dr. Wray began by pointing out that: “Mental health is not merely the absence of mental illness. Mental health is the embodiment of social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.” (VicHealth 2005).
Climate change impacts on mental health through direct impacts (eg. trauma from natural disasters, conflicts and migration), indirect impacts (eg. eco-anxiety), and system and community impacts (eg. the damage done to our social infrastructure and resilience).
Heatwaves are the most frequent and deadly of climate disasters. They make people more violent, increase suicide rates and self-harm, especially in those with pre-existing mental health issues.
Creeping impacts like droughts can also have significant impacts on vulnerable communities, for example in the case of Indian farmer suicides (Carleton 2017).
Several studies are looking at the ecological grief and mental health impacts Inuit communities are experiencing due to loss of sea ice. This is also linked to the concept of solastalgia, developed by [Australian] philosopher Dr. Glenn Albrecht.
Eco-anxiety is not a diagnosis and should not be pathologized. Eco-empathy may be a better term. It encompasses a range of feelings, such as fear, grief, rage, dread, despair and guilt as well as anxiety.
Eco-anxiety is made much worse by the sense that politicians are not taking the action they need to, to address climate change.
Eco-anxiety can be paralysing but can also help people to make practical change in their lives and actions.
Environmental professionals need particular support to deal with the emotional toll of their work.
Young people are also particularly vulnerable, with many deciding not to have children, or already experiencing negative mental health impacts due to climate change. Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman of the Climate Psychology Alliance UK has been studying how this eco-anxiety manifests.
We need both individual and bold community action – and to help people self-care to deal with their eco-anxiety. Containment in safe spaces to share emotions is very important – eg. Good Grief Network and Council on the Uncertain Human Future, trained climate psychologists.
Addressing climate change can have a two-fold impact on mental health – for example planting trees to reduce heat in cities also makes people feel better.
Dr. Wray chose to finish with the following quote:
“Ecological grief and anxiety over current losses or anticipated future change are a sign of relationship with, or connection to, the natural world. What is needed are accessible and safe spaces to explore these difficult emotional reactions, the political will to ensure that important strategies and supports are funded, and the research required to strengthen and support approaches of healing and resilience. Recognizing that emotions are often what leads people to act, it is possible that feelings of ecological anxiety and grief, although uncomfortable, are in fact the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and conviction that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required.” (Consulo, et al, The Lancet, July 2020) (emphasis mine)
Watch the full webinar.