The Psychic Impacts of
Chronic Climate-Change Stress
Janet Lewis, MD 4/18/18
An important emerging field at the intersection of mental health and climate is the exploration of the long term psychic effects of climate destabilization. The effects of disasters themselves are well known, as are their extended impacts. Individual disasters are known to be associated, in a significant minority of patients, with long term mental health conditions including complicated grief, PTSD, increased risks of suicide and substance abuse, in addition to depression and anxiety. (Clayton 2017) However a more difficult question to explore relates to the other long term effects on us of a disrupted climate.
Some of the first literature related to this question concerns the experience of indigenous peoples (e.g. Cunsolo Willox et al 2012, Asugeni et al, 2015) whose dislocation from particular land and powerlessness in the face of that dislocation has been associated with significant mental health issues. This literature has now been joined by studies, mostly in rural areas, of the experiences of those whose environments have undergone tremendous change, such as by coal-mining or drought (Canu et al., 2017; Ellis & Albrecht, 2017). These studies have documented continuing distress as well as what has been termed solastalgia(Albrecht et al, 2007), a kind of grief for a changed landscape which no longer offers solace.
Are the only people affected by chronic climate change stress those with particularly intimate associations with land, such as those of indigenous cultures and those in farm-based communities, or are these populations “canaries in the mine”, potentially alerting us to widespread but less obvious distress? A few lines of investigation are beginning to suggest the latter. Case reports are now appearing about clinically significant climate distress. (e.g. Bodnar 2008, Wolf & Salo, 2008). A quantitative study of Australians, half of whom lived in urban areas, documented significant distress over climate change, particularly among women and adults aged 35 and younger. (Searle & Gow, 2010) A qualitative study of residents of the Great Lakes region of the U.S., none of whom were involved in any form of environmental activity, demonstrated that change and degradation in the natural environment was actually producing high levels of concern and an “arrested mourning”. This led to a withdrawal from engagement and apparent (but not actual) apathy (Lertzman 2013). This phenomenon of withdrawal in response to difficult feelings about environmental change may mask the actual prevalence of climate related distress.
There are many open questions about further chronic psychic impacts of climate change. It is reasonable for us to expect greater occurrence of acculturative stress, as increasing numbers of people will be forced to migrate. Another concern which has been raised by clinicians, such as Lise Van Susteren, is that individuals’ psychological experience of the natural disasters may shift from a blaming of natural forces to a blaming of human negligence, given the human causes of much climate change. This attribution is clinically important since it is known that human caused trauma leads to more prolonged PTSD than trauma arising from non-human causes. Seeing others engaged in actively battling climate change may attenuate this risk. Other proposed solutions to chronic climate change stress include improving social connections, acknowledging anxiety and other difficult feelings, reconnecting to nature, and finding creative ways to re-engage.(Clayton et al 2017, Lertzman2013)
Albrecht, G., G.-M. Sartore, L. Connor, N. Higginbotham, S. Freeman, B Kelly, H. Stain, A. Tonna, and G. Pollard. (2007) “Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change,” Australasian Psychiatry 15: S95-S98.
Asugeni J, MacLaren D, Massey PD, Speare R. (2015) Mental health issues from rising sea level in a remote coastal region of the Solomon Islands current and future, Australasian Psychiatry, Vol 23(6) Supplement 22 –25.
Bodnar, S. (2008) Wasted and Bombed: Clinical Enactments of a Changing Relationship to the Earth, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 18:4, 484-512.
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017) Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
Cunsolo Willox A, Harper SL, Ford JD, Landman K, Houle K, Edge VL; Rigolet Inuit Community Government. (2012) "From this place and of this place:" climate change, sense of place, and health in Nunatsiavut, Canada.Social Science & Medicine75(3):538-47.
Ellis NR, Albrecht GA. (2017) Climate change threats to family farmers' sense of place and mental wellbeing: A case study from the Western Australian Wheatbelt Social Science & Medicine 175:161-168.
Lertzman, R. (2013) The myth of apathy. In Sally Weintrobe (Ed.), Engaging with climate change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives(pp. 117-133). London and New York, NY: Routledge.
Van Susteren L. (2017, October) Psychiatry’s duty to warn, presented as part of Symposium, Climate Change: The Ultimate Social Determinant of Health and Mental Health, at Institute for Psychiatric Services, New Orleans.
Wolf, J, Salo, R (2008) Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink: climate change delusion. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 42: 350.