It’s obvious just how much the pandemic is affecting our mental health – but it is not the only thing. A recent United Nations climate report puts mental health at the forefront of the many climate-related issues our world is facing. Not only are younger populations indirectly affected by climate anxiety, but those who live through hurricanes and floods are also susceptible to mental disorders – in fact, 20-30% of them develop PTSD or depression. Wildfires induce anxiety, substance abuse, and sleeping issues. Interestingly, hotter weather by itself causes mental health problems, demonstrated by a study of almost two million Americans. Displacement, unemployment, and food insecurity brought on by climate change are also behind many of the stresses people around the globe face. Walking through wildfire smoke and city smog all day isn’t exactly enjoyable, either. It is even possible for people to experience psychological distress from seeing the destruction of landscapes which are important to them. Especially negatively impacted are first responders, youth, women, indigenous peoples, and outdoor workers. For example, the Inuit, who live in the Arctic and who must hunt and fish for sustenance, are facing increasingly dangerous and unpredictable environments. However, part of the problem is how we think about climate change: most of the time, climate change conversation is centered on pessimistic fatalism, and we often ignore the fact that taking steps to counteract climate change, such as using cars less and walking instead, can have positive effects on our mental health.
In my opinion, this climate change report is not a game-changer: it is simply one more reason to prioritize climate change, if there weren’t enough reasons already. It is also yet another indication of the nation’s nonexistent mental health support system. Of course, that is not to say we should just ignore the problem. In my opinion, the value of this report is not in its actual content, but rather what it shows us about how to think about mental health. The more the professional lens is focused on mental health, the more it becomes just how important it is to look the world in that way. Starting with the pandemic, studies have been finding previously overlooked yet critical ways that our society interacts with mental health. It turns out that politics and TikTok can take a toll on mental health, for example. Moreover, we must ask ourselves how people of different ages, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, occupations, and genders are affected differently. How can we outfit the response to mental health crises in a way that befits the specific situation? If I were any more pretentious, I would call this my model for mental health policy. Climate change is just one example of where this could and should be applied. What about the war in Ukraine? That’s a great idea. Maybe I’ll make it my next blog post.