Hidden Effects of Climate Change on Mental Health

Although the traumatic effects of climate disasters are well-known, the slower disruption of climatic patterns also takes its toll, one much less visible and acknowledged.

By Carlos Roa

The online journal Nature Mental Health recently published a piece by Christy Denckla, Assistant Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, delving into a systematic review of the effects of chronic, and slow-onset climate change on mental health.

The summary states: “The mental health effects of climate-related disasters are well characterized, yet less is known about the impact of chronic, slow-onset climate change.”

A policy brief by the World Health Organization pointed at the issue earlier, urging countries to include mental health support in their response to the climate crisis.

This challenge is still evolving, particularly in understanding the causal links between ecosystem changes and mental health. Examples include the influence of glacier melting or prolonged droughts, unfolding over years or decades, impacting cultural practices, community identity, food security, and healthcare access.

A New Challenge for Researchers

In an interview for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website, Denckla elaborates that “Now, the most urgent research priority is to understand the mechanisms through which slower-moving aspects of climate change such as temperature variability, ecosystem shifts, and changes in precipitation, affect mental health.”

She explains that “Chronic, slower-onset stressors tend not to be immediately lethal and, therefore, have different effects on mental health relative to acute events. The effects of chronic stressors accumulate over time”.

The WHO brief highlights that “Despite this impact, significant gaps exist in many countries between mental health needs and the availability and accessibility of the mental health systems and services to address them.”

Furthermore, this source warns that “Certain groups are disproportionately at risk from climate change-related hazards, including people with pre-existing mental health conditions.”

Going deeper into the matter, the mental health impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed; rather, they disproportionately affect certain groups based on factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, and age. This unequal burden exacerbates existing global challenges in mental health.

Taking Action to Tackle the Issue

Foreseeing the approach to the challenge, Christy Denckla aims to examine the intricate links between environmental exposures and individual experiences, “ultimately helping find population-level solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on mental health.”

The WHO recommends five key approaches to address these impacts:

1. Integrate climate change considerations into policies and programs for mental health, including Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), to better prepare for and respond to the climate crisis.

2. Integrate MHPSS into climate change and health-related policies and programs.

3. Build upon global commitments.

4. Implement multisectoral and community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities and address the mental health and psychosocial impacts of climate change.

5. Address the substantial funding gaps that exist for both mental health and responding to the health impacts of climate change.

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