Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership

Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership

Our Planet, Our Health: thinking about mental health in a climate crisis

Apr, 2022

Today’s World Health Day theme, ‘Our Planet, Our Health’, brings focus to the health impacts of the climate crisis.

As the recent floods crisis on Australia’s east coast shows, climate change can have a serious impact on mental health, and mental health supports are destined to become a core part of the way we respond to climate disasters.

The impact

For a lot of people, the words ‘climate crisis’ will evoke thoughts of wasted resources, melting icecaps and carbon credits. Coupled with that, though, is an underlying feeling of anxiety. This is what has led to the coining of a new term – ‘eco-anxiety.’

Eco-anxiety is the feeling of worry that many people feel when thinking about climate change, ecodisasters and extreme weather events. According to the Journal of Climate Change and Health, ‘Eco-anxiety is the distress caused by climate change where people are becoming anxious about their future,’ and can be chronic or acute. The same article identified children, young people and Indigenous people as being most at risk of developing this form of anxiety.

The term is a new attempt at categorising the feelings of grief, fear and anger that for many people accompany the climate crisis, but it describes only one of the mental health concerns related to climate change. The Black Dog Institute, in its report ‘Climate Change and Mental Health’, noted that people who lived through disasters caused by climate change can develop depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep disruption and suicidal ideation. While many people experience only temporary mental ill-health, the Institute noted, the mental health impacts of these disasters can last decades or even generations: ‘For example, long term research after the Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia showed that the mental health impact could still be detected in the children of affected families twenty years after the fires.’

The cost

As Australians are discovering, climate change comes with more than a physical cost. The Australian Government earmarked $31.2 million in the last Federal Budget for mental health initiatives to support people impacted by the recent floods in New South Wales and Queensland, with further investments in initiatives designed to support the mental health of First Responders. Climate change now has a line in the mental health budget of our country.

Is this kind of budgeting likely to continue? It’s difficult to see a reason against it. In the same report, the Black Dog Institute addresses the wide-ranging mental health impacts of climate change: Australians living in rural and remote areas will face increased stress and its corresponding increased risks to mental health; people displaced due to environmental factors are more likely to develop ongoing mental health issues; young people, faced with an uncertain ecological future, report high levels of anxiety around climate change.

World Health Day

World Health Day was instituted by the World Health Organisation on the anniversary of its founding. It’s an annual opportunity for the organisation to bring an important health concern into focus. The theme this year highlights a connection between climate and health that, for some, might be unexpected – a link that hides behind the immediate impact of environmental disasters. Drawing a line beyond that into mental health is perhaps an even more unexpected leap, but it’s one that will lead to further integration of mental health in our country’s future.

Further reading:

Coffey et al (2021), ‘Understanding Eco-anxiety: A Systematic Scoping Review of Current Literature and Identified Knowledge Gaps’, The Journal of Climate Change and Health

Black Dog Institute (2021), ‘The implications of climate change on mental health’

Garad et al (2021), ‘Australians are three times more worried about climate change than COVID’, The Conversation

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