• Jessica Zimmer

Climate Change Strains Mental Health. These Psychiatrists are Taking Action

In the past five years, unpredictable weather, higher temperatures and spot-specific flooding incidents have resulted in a rise in anxiety, and psychiatrists expect the demand for climate change-related mental health treatments to surge.

People after natural disaster, fire, house burned down
Credit: Shutterstock/Vlad Teodor

Recovery from climate change-related mental health issues begins with education. Patients seeking treatment can learn whether their anxiety and disorders are related to climate change by talking with their provider. After a session, they can act to reduce carbon emissions to benefit their mental well-being and the planet.

“The number and severity of disasters like fires associated with the 2021 Western North America heat wave have increased. Mental health impacts will too,” said Dr. Robin Cooper, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist.

Dr. Robin Cooper, a psychiatrist based in San Francisco, is a member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. Credit: Robin Cooper

Cooper said individuals and families in rural and suburban areas who have lost homes, belongings, family members, and pets in floods or wildfires might develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In addition, city dwellers forced indoors by smoke and poor air quality often suffer from higher anxiety.

Problems related to climate change have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the pandemic's start, shelter in place orders limited access to outdoor recreation.

“In urban environments, higher temperatures lead to stress and require money and additional cooling equipment to address. People living in poverty and people of color are disproportionately affected,” said Cooper.

Dr. Jim Fleming, a Kansas City, Missouri-based psychiatrist, said reading negative news related to climate change affects patients as well.

“Young people especially say they don’t want to have children because they are concerned about the future,” said Fleming.

Leveraging talk therapy to find solutions

Therapy is typically the first step to recovering from stress related to climate change. When patients voice their concerns, they signal that they are open to hearing suggestions from a mental health professional.

That’s where members of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA) come in. The CPA is a national association of psychiatrists who work to improve mental health by preventing and mitigating problems caused by climate change.

Cooper and Fleming, both members of the CPA, said the organization helps mental health professionals share information.

“We support each other and listen, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has been isolating. Connecting to share uplifting news and writing poems related to improvements have been very therapeutic for me,” said Fleming.

Dr. John Sullenbarger is a psychiatry resident at Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio, and a member of the CPA. Sullenbarger said climate change-related anxiety is also caused by dissent between individuals and groups.

“When there’s a disaster, there’s often disagreement within the community about the cause of it and how to recover. Factions develop. There’s a loss of trust in people who are in charge, like politicians. Voters do not feel as if leaders listen to or look out for them when they experience these disasters and nothing is done,” said Sullenbarger.

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Sullenbarger has seen patients through a virtual clinic in Athens, Ohio, since the pandemic began. He said patients become empowered by helping themselves and others.

“Older generations want to feel they’re leaving the world in good shape for younger generations. Younger people want to create a sense of certainty about their future. When people work together, they can engage in extensive, intentional efforts to connect and reduce carbon emissions,” said Sullenbarger.

Shifting the paradigm

Cooper supports the idea of the paradigm of mental health care shifting from solely treating problems that people experience after a climate-related disaster. She advocates for an approach that involves public health prevention. Cooper added it is essential to form alliances with community-based organizations and engage with community members to identify their needs.

“Such a program would help to anticipate the needs of individuals, families and the community. Mental health professionals can collaborate with communities to foster resiliency and interaction,” said Cooper.

Cooper said everyone experiences the impacts of climate change in unique and personal ways. Society as a whole undergoes physical and emotional aspects of climate change.

“People coming together in groups to share their collective experiences can diminish the isolation and build restorative relationships,” said Cooper.

talk therapy, people of color
Credit: Shutterstock/Prostock-studio

Sullenbarger noted sometimes people are inspired to address climate change after they experience severe weather phenomena firsthand.

“I spent my first three years of psychiatry residency in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t until the fires came close that I felt comfortable having conversations about climate change with patients,” said Sullenbarger.

Sullenbarger said political differences can make it hard for people to communicate. Finding resources that explain changes in the climate and understanding how these relate to human health is helpful for communities.

“I think a good way to approach the issue is to start talking about observable changes in the weather. People can then move to talking about the weather’s effects on human health. This invokes personal incentive to make change,” said Sullenbarger.


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