The impact of climate change on mental health
With climate commitments and actual actions still falling short of what is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, all eyes are on the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) taking place in Dubai.
Climate change not only impacts the balance of nature surrounding us, it also has a major impact on our mental health. Yet governments only allocate around 2% of their health budgets to mental health, a number that will need to increase as climate change intensifies, says Dr. Sanae Okamoto, researcher at the UN University in Maastricht, UNU-MERIT, who has a psychology background in behavioural science and cognitive neuroscience.
“Like many others, I also feel overwhelmed by the huge and uncertain impacts of climate change. It is scary,” she says in an interview with UNRIC. “But at the same time, I feel that I am in this challenge together with everyone else. Climate risk is a health risk because it is impacting us all on a personal level. Therefore, I want to understand the impact and build evidence so we can empower ourselves to face this global challenge.”
Dr. Sanae Okamoto’s research focuses on the relation between climate change and mental health, and she and her colleagues at UN University (UNU-CRIS and UNU-EHS) are co-organising a UN high-level side event with WHO and UNICEF at COP28 on this topic.
Can you elaborate on some specific examples of the impact of climate change on mental health?
New terms have emerged to describe climate change impacts on mental health. Climate change anxiety is associated with the symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder and is experienced by people, often young, overwhelmed with anxiety and the feeling that they have no control over the planet’s future. Eco-grief is triggered by witnessing environmental degradation, viewing media depictions or indirectly experiencing the climate crisis. ‘Solastalgia’ is used to describe feelings of people whose native lands or familiar environments are changing quickly and who have experienced a loss of sense of place.
Research shows that these mental health conditions could occur through acute events such as storms, floods, and wildfires; through long-term changes such as droughts and heat stress as well as related food and water insecurities; and through long-lasting changes to landscapes and physical environments caused by altered ecosystems and landscapes.
How do you see the lack of progress in global climate action contributing to distress, especially among young people and children?
As climate change-induced risks and events have been in news headlines almost daily, many young people and children learn about governments’ inertia on global climate action.
A recent landmark study conducted in 10 different countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) with 10,000 young people (16-25) revealed that nearly 60% of them expressed that they feel ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’. Many also associated negative emotions – feeling sad, afraid, anxious, angry, and powerless – with climate change. The study shows large numbers of young people globally regard governments as failing to address or act on the climate crisis in a coherent, urgent way, expressing that they feel betrayal and abandonment both individually and on behalf of future generations.
Another study reported that young people are factoring climate-anxiety into their decisions on whether to have children, with 97% saying they were concerned about the well-being of children in the future.
Although climate change is now recognised as a catastrophic harm to children’s health, with more than 88% of the current burden of disease attributable to climate change occurring in children, very little attention has been given to the mental health consequences of climate risks for children. Around 85%, or 2.2 billion of the world’s children, live in low- and middle-income countries that are also the most vulnerable to climate risks.
What outcomes are you hoping to see emerge from your work?
Currently, only 28% of countries have a functional programme that integrates mental health and psychosocial support within preparedness and disaster risk reduction, including for climate-related hazards.
Governments allocate only an average of 2% of health budgets to mental health. Smaller budgets lead to reduced access to proper health care, and a lack of mental health care workers. Mental health support globally is fraught with challenges even without considering climate change. One billion people worldwide are currently living with a mental health disorder, with only 13 mental health workers for every 100,000 people globally. The situation is even more severe in societies where mental health issues are considered culturally taboo.
Therefore, prioritising and allocating adequate resources to address mental health challenges is urgently needed at both national and international level.
This COP28 held the first ever Health Day on 3 December. Together with many of those who work and research in health, I hope that health will be at the heart of the climate agenda.
Specifically, the presence of health and mental health within adaptation and non-economic loss and damage workstreams of UNFCCC [UN Climate Change] should also be broadened with specific, dedicated funding mechanisms.
How can mental health support systems be effectively integrated into climate change adaptation?
There are several pathways we should explore and promote. The first is encouraging community-led approaches. These approaches, such as citizen assemblies on climate action, could act as cooperative platforms where communities, scientists, mental health care practitioners and governments can discuss and establish trust. In order to facilitate community-level connections, it is crucial to have reliable and understandable climate communication. Participants can express their concerns and feelings about the planet’s future, gain knowledge about climate change, and promote collective actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Climate activism can also be associated with increased mental well-being where it emphasises the importance of creating opportunities for engaging in collective action and developing a sense of solidarity.
Another approach would be using advanced technologies, such as the application of Artificial Intelligence [AI] and digitalisation. AI and natural language processing tools enable the identification of mental health conditions and trends through language patterns and images in social media posts. Public-private partnerships involving technology and social media companies, NGOs and governments should be leveraged to develop predictive analytics to detect issues early, provide interventions, and shape national mental health policies.
Digital mental healthcare through tele-therapeutic apps has seen explosive growth since the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 10,000 digital apps offer the opportunity to increase access to mental health care, which can help reduce inequalities in accessing mental health support, as they can reach remote regions and reduce fears of stigma around seeking support.
However, use of such new technologies and individual data need to be carefully regulated to minimise risks to security and privacy.
During our engagement with youth, we meet young people who believe they will not turn 50. What do you respond to them?
It is important to provide a safe environment where young people can talk about their feelings openly, to validate their concerns, acknowledge these feelings with empathy, and assure them it is fine to worry about the future.
It is also important to highlight that there are many positive actions happening in the world, and encourage young people to take some positive small actions, such as joining school-age projects, family- or community-activities, etc. to let them feel connected with others and nature. At the same time, it is necessary to monitor youngsters’ emotional well-being, and if the anxiety persists, or their normal daily activities (e.g., school work, playing with friends, eating, sleeping) are getting disturbed by excessive concerns about not surviving the climate crisis, it is important to consult with a licensed professional as soon as possible.
What role do you see education playing in fostering resilience among future generations in the face of climate-related challenges?
Building knowledge of climate change but also learning from each other what we can do, such as pro-environmental behaviours or recognise how we feel, and share these feelings. It needs to be considered as a ‘new normal’ curriculum as teachers, parents and caregivers may feel anxious as well. We need to empower these people who will be guiding the next generation with the right knowledge and explain what type of actions we can take.
We should also teach children about climate facts in a way that does not scare them, so including collaborative experiential learning with community-activities such as planting trees in the local environment, interacting with scientists. This would support children to gain the right knowledge and a collective feeling. It would lead to the development of a community-level support ecosystem.
What are the key actions and priorities you would recommend for policymakers to address the mental health impacts of climate change?
Don’t overlook the impact of mental illness in the population. This impact can be intensified by pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities relating to age, gender, ethnicity, disability, economic disparities and displacement. As a result, poor mental health can lead to impaired cognitive abilities, strained familial and social relationships, substance addiction and even suicide. It is a public health issue. It is a challenge but if we tackle this challenge well, it is an opportunity for public health as well.
Policy makers should include this issue in the national climate strategy by increasing the budget for mental health support, exploring new technologies and community-led approaches.
What is the most critical message you hope readers take away from your work?
Accept that it is overwhelming, bring awareness, learn what we can do, such as pro-environmental behaviour. It can be plastic recycling, using public transport, reducing waste, clean-ups, and trying to do your own small action by yourself, but also encouraging others to join you.
- WHO policy brief on climate change and mental health
- Climate: Key facts on COP28
- UNU Climate Change and Mental Health Series policy briefs: Co-Creating a Resilient Future: