CCL Conference Preview: How does climate change affect mental health?

Susan Clayton

Dr. Susan Clayton, professor of psychology at The College of Wooster, is co-author of Mental Health and Our Changing Climate.

By Mary Gable

Scientists have a firm understanding of the likely environmental consequences of a changing climate—rising temperatures, shifting coastlines, more intense storms. We also understand the physical effects these changes are likely to have on humans, including increases in respiratory illnesses, waterborne diseases, and exhaustion and dehydration due to heat and drought.

But what effect does climate change have on our psychological well-being? That’s an aspect of the conversation we hear about far less often. Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is one of the leading researchers looking for answers to this question. Clayton is a professor of psychology at The College of Wooster and co-author of Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, a report recently published by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica. She’ll be speaking about the findings contained in this report at a panel discussion at next week’s International Conference.

What insights is she likely to offer? “The impacts that climate change can have on our mental health fall into a few categories,” Clayton explains. First are effects on people who survive natural disasters. Existing research reveals that when major storms increase in a particular area, so does the incidence of disorders like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Given the potential trauma of losing one’s home, belongings, and even loved ones to a storm, it’s no surprise that living through such an event can leave lasting psychological scars.

Other effects are more difficult to observe. The slow changes that we know climate change will cause, like warmer seasons and rising sea levels, will also change behavior. “For example, research has found links between heat and aggression,” she says. “Competition for increasingly scarce resources could increase tensions in areas of conflict, and hotter temperatures could make the problem even worse.” Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense has published reports describing exactly this danger.

A third category of impacts on our mental health is an “overall level of worry” about what the future holds. “You don’t have to be directly affected by climate change for it to influence your mental well-being,” Clayton says. “Many people are anxious about their future security, loss of treasured biodiversity or natural places, and the world their offspring will inherit.” She describes an example of a colleague from D.C. who scheduled her wedding to coincide with the blossoming of the city’s cherry trees. The woman was disillusioned when the trees bloomed much earlier than expected, possibly as a result of new climate patterns. Says Clayton, “In countless large and small ways, climate change is severing our connections to the places we love.”

How to respond? While mental health issues are far from clear-cut, hope and determination help, Clayton says. In fact, if you’re an active member of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, you may be helping give your mindset a boost. “People who get involved with activist groups tend to feel more empowered—and therefore, happier,” she explains. “Groups based on common interests also strengthen social connections, which are important in building resilience.”

“Optimism leads to action, so it’s essential to remain upbeat even in the face of despair,” Clayton says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Catch Dr. Clayton, along with Lise van Susteren, MD (also a contributor to the APA and ecoAmerica report) at the panel discussion “Climate Change and Our Psyche” on Monday, June 12 at 4:30 p.m. Read more of Clayton’s musings on climate and psychology on her blog, On Being Green.

Mary Gable
Mary Gable is a writer and editor who focuses on sustainability and innovation. She's based in Seattle, but takes her work on the road whenever she can.