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Mental health and climate change

12 September 2022 - Dr Jan Orman

As I write this, I’m sitting in the airline lounge at Sydney airport waiting for a flight to the Gold Coast. I’m going there to speak at a conference and I’ll be back in Sydney tomorrow.  I fly so much that I’m a platinum frequent flyer and it’s all very easy and comfortable (late and cancelled flights notwithstanding) but I’ve started to think about the morality of it, and to wonder how much of this travel could be done in other ways, or maybe even not at all. Can I do more to reduce my own carbon footprint and how I can encourage those around me to do so as well?

Is anything really changing?

In Australia we are used to news of natural disasters, but we haven’t always experienced disasters this often or this severely. Could this be a consequence of climate change? Most authorities would say “absolutely yes!”.

Increasingly the rhetoric around climate change is moving away from discussions about whether it exists or not, and debates about whether it is related to human activity or not, to more rational discussions about what we can do, individually and collectively, to limit global warming and its effects.

Setting aside all the other issues I am keen to talk about the health consequences of climate change specifically.

The physical health consequences of climate change arise from damage to food and water security (think gastroenteritis from flood polluted water supplies, burnt and drought affected crops etc) , rise in infectious disease (think mosquito borne infection in waterlogged areas), increase in allergic conditions including asthma (think thunderstorm asthma and increased pollen and mould exposure from warm moist conditions) and the impact of the loss of biodiversity (do you know it takes thirty mature trees to make enough oxygen for one adult human to survive for one year?).

Mental health consequences are of particular concern to me. Natural disasters and catastrophes are followed by increased rates of PTSD, but there is also an increased incidence of depression, anxiety, domestic violence, drug and alcohol related conditions and suicide for many years after a natural disaster. Children affected by natural disasters have been shown to fall behind their peers in development and educational achievement for up to ten years. There are also psychological issues around financial hardship and loss, as well the moral injury we experience when those responsible are not seen to be taking appropriate action.

And all that doesn’t include the psychological distress and despair associated with just thinking about what life might be like in the future.

Psychoterratic syndrome

The term “psychoterratic syndrome” includes all the forms of psychological distress associated with climate change.

Climate-related distress is not in itself a mental illness but a rational response to a real threat. However, that distress can negatively impact on lives and lead to impairment and mental illness.

Eco anxiety, ecological grief and solastalgia – here’s what I know:

  • Ecoanxiety refers to a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”
  • Climate/ecological grief is grief in response to actual or anticipated losses resulting from disturbance of ecosystems.
  • Solastalgia means “existential distress in response to environmental change.” Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who coined the term in his 2003 book, referred to solastalgia evocatively as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home.”

What can we do?

As health professionals our first task is always to validate someone’s distress. That done, we need to help people change the narrative to a more optimistic one, perhaps by discussing what we can all do to help make things better.

The key to managing climate distress seems to be remaining hopeful and understanding that every little thing each of us does contributes to the likelihood of a liveable world in the future.

Here are some suggestions from Doctors for the Environment Australia:

  • Reduce your use of fossil fuels. Get rid of gas in your home, make sure your electricity comes from providers who use solar and wind generation. Support the abandonment of new gas and coal exploration. Support those who support legislation that will make that happen.
  • Buy an electric car as soon as you can afford one, campaign for legislative change to support the use of electric vehicles.
  • Walk rather than drive. Doing so is good for you and the world in so many ways.
  • Switch to a plant-based diet, buy locally grown produce to reduce the transport footprint, reduce food waste as far as possible
  • Plant a tree (or several trees) and support the greening of urban areas as well as help fight deforestation then spend time in nature admiring your greening efforts because we know that natural landscapes have a clear positive effect on our physical and mental health.

If we are working with people who are concerned about climate change we need to talk to them in a way that helps them regain their optimism. Doing so might even help us regain our own!

As for me, I am lucky enough to already have an electric car. Why am I flying anywhere at all? I have decided that I am going to make the time to drive wherever I need to go in future. I love driving anyway and it will make me feel good to know I am adding that to my contribution to the wellbeing of the world.

Further reading:

Doctors for the Environment Australia https://dea.org.au/

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Report 2021 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)01787-6/fulltext

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Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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