Climate Change Likely to Have Broad Psychological Impact, too

Stress, anxiety, PTSD among possible effects on overall well-being according to report

17 June, 2014 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Melting glaciers and shrinking shorelines are not the only consequences of global climate change. The wellbeing of the nation's nearly 320 million inhabitants, not to mention the planet's nearly seven billion other residents, is also at risk, according to a new report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

The report, for which College of Wooster psychologist Susan Clayton was the lead author, indicates that climate change will have significant negative impacts on Americans' health and psychological wellbeing. These effects may include stress, anxiety, depression, and a loss of community identity. An increase in the number and severity of climate-related natural disasters is likely to result in a rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. Meanwhile more gradual changes in the climate will force some individuals and communities to relocate or to change their daily routines, leading to disrupted societies and to feelings of loss and helplessness.

"The striking thing is how these effects will permeate so many aspects of our daily lives," said Norman B. Anderson, PhD, CEO of the American Psychological Association. "The effects we are likely to see aren't just trauma from experiencing natural disasters. We can also expect increases in long-term stress and anxiety from the aftermath of disasters, as well as increases in violence and crime rates as a result of higher temperatures or competition for scarce resources."

The report aims to remind people that climate change will have real human consequences. It also recommends courses of action that individuals and communities can take to address the psychological impacts of climate change.

"There are a number of things communities can do to prepare for acute impacts of climate change, such as hurricanes and wildfires, as well as the slowly evolving changes like droughts that permanently and profoundly affect communities." said Bob Perkowitz, president of ecoAmerica. "Virtually everything a community does to prepare for or help prevent climate change has co-benefits, like increased community cohesion, increased health and well-being, and risk reduction."

According to the report, certain populations, such as women, children, and the elderly, will be especially vulnerable to mental health impacts. In addition, communities with poor physical or social infrastructure may see more acute physical and consequential psychological impacts.

Among the recommendations that individuals and communities can take to buffer themselves from psychological and mental health impacts from climate-change related events is for city planners and health officials to prepare for disaster communication, to be mindful of mental health needs and the needs of more vulnerable citizens, and to put resources toward strengthening collaboration with existing community and social networks, which can serve as important sources of social support before, during, and after disasters.

"The goal of this report is to connect the dots: to take what the research shows about the social and psychological impacts of climate and describe the implications for the future," said Clayton. "The message is that we are all vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in some way. We need to plan now to create the support networks that will help us to cope."