CLIMATE CHANGE & MENTAL HEALTH - John Wawrzonek

CLIMATE CHANGE AND MENTAL HEALTH

Climate change is wreaking havoc on our mental health, experts say

As a provincial coroner and past palliative care physician, Dr. David Ouchterlony has seen suffering and death up close, experiences that have occasionally led to brief moments of sadness. But Ouchterlony describes such emotions as “trivial” compared to the dread he feels when thoughts about climate change linger, as they often do. He worries almost obsessively about a future he won’t see. How will younger generations be affected? Why are we failing to act on the threat? “I was completely blind to it, and then five years ago it just hit me,” Ouchterlony, 74, said. “I went through this stage of losing sleep, thinking about my grandchild, wondering what I could do.” Waves breaks against a pier and a lighthouse during high winds in Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France, on February 9, 2016. Waves breaks against a pier and a lighthouse during high winds in Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France, on February 9, 2016. (LOIC VENANCE / AFP/GETTY IMAGES) He described the feeling as an “absence of hope” characterized by despair and, at times, exhausting guilt. Some researchers have called it a “pre-traumatic” stress disorder that, in some, is feeding anxiety and depressive thoughts. Ouchterlony isn’t alone. Signs of mental distress related to climate change have appeared in vulnerable populations, from drought-stricken prairie farmers to isolated aboriginal communities and the scientists who crunch climate data. Our fast-changing climate has long been identified as a threat to physical health, but more psychologists are warning that the mental health impacts and the economic toll they take are real, likely to spread and need closer study. “We may not currently be thinking about how heavy the toll on our psyche will be, but, before long, we will know only too well,” warned a 2012 report from the U.S. National Wildlife Federation. It predicted that cases of mental and social disorders will rise steeply as the signs of climate change become clearer and more frequent, and as more people are directly affected by heat waves, drought and other extreme events that put pressure on clean water resources, food prices and public infrastructure. “These will include depressive and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, suicides and widespread outbreaks of violence,” predicted the report. It singled out children, the poor, the elderly and those with existing mental health problems as those likely to be hardest hit. “At roughly 150 million people, these groups represent about one half of the American public,” it calculated. In addition, the mental health profession is “not even close to being prepared” and the report warned the existing problem is likely being underestimated because most research is based on self-reporting. “People may, indeed, suffer from anxiety about climate change but not know it. They will have a vague unease about what is happening around them, the changes they see in nature, the weather events and the fact that records are being broken month after month. But they won’t be sufficiently aware of the source, and furthermore, we all conflate and layer one anxiety upon another.”

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