Disproportionate Impact of
Climate Change on
Minority Mental Health Populations

— Carissa Caban‐Aleman, MD

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Research has demonstrated that climate change is already causing and will continue to cause a series of health impacts that vary across different populations in the United States. The level of vulnerability and climate change’s impact on different populations varies according to how much exposure it has to climate change related health risks, its capacity to respond to or cope with climate variability and its capability to demand and advocate for appropriate community resources for coping with the current and future impacts of climate change. Vulnerable populations usually consist of persons with low income, racial minorities, immigrant groups (particularly those with limited English proficiency), indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.

Minorities usually experience disproportionate, multiple, and complex risks to their health and well-being in response to climate change. The close relationship of some minority and indigenous groups with their natural environments makes them especially sensitive to the effects of global warming. Minorities tend to live more frequently in impoverished urban centers or isolated rural areas, coastal and other flood-prone areas, areas with older or poorly maintained infrastructure, or areas with an increased burden of air pollution that are sometimes marginalized and very exposed, which makes them more susceptible to climate impacts. These groups also face a number of social and economic stressors related to non-climate factors. They have a higher incidence of chronic medical conditions, limited access to medical care, transportation and education, social isolation related to language deficiencies, higher poverty rates, language and cultural barriers, issues with citizenship status, etc. Many of these stressors occur simultaneously and/or constantly. Over time, the accumulation of these stressors can make a serious impact on the mental health of these groups, as climate-related stressors add severity to existing mental and physical health conditions and/or with other socioeconomic and demographic risk factors.

Communities can have greater or lesser vulnerability to health risks depending on social, political, and economic factors, collectively known as social determinants of health. Understanding the role of social determinants of mental health can help characterize the influence of climate change on the etiology of mental illness and identify public health interventions to prevent and/or reduce its impact on minorities.

References:

  1. Gamble, J.L., J. Balbus, M. Berger, K. Bouye, V. Campbell, K. Chief, K. Conlon, A. Crimmins, B. Flanagan, C. Gonzalez-Maddux, E. Hallisey, S. Hutchins, L. Jantarasami, S. Khoury, M. Kiefer, J. Kolling, K. Lynn, A. Manangan, M. McDonald, R. Morello-Frosch, M.H. Redsteer, P. Sheffield, K. Thigpen Tart, J. Watson, K.P. Whyte, and A.F. Wolkin, 2016: Ch. 9: Populations of Concern. The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 247–286. http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0Q81B0T (https://health2016.globalchange.gov/populations- concern) 
    http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/ClimateChange/Submissions/Minority_Rights_Group _International.pdf
  2. IPCC, Climate Change 2007 – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, p. 374; see also chapter 7 on industry, settlement and society and chapter 17 on adaptation practices, options, constraints and capacity.
  3. Luber, G., and others, 2014: Ch. 9: Human Health. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J.M. Melillo, Richmond, T. (T.C.), and Yohe, G.W., Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 220-256. doi:10.7930/J0PN93H5