May 3 | Psychiatric News


Societal, Systemic Change Is Key to Addressing Mental Health Impact of Climate Change

By Terri D’Arrigo

Extreme and prolonged climatic events can have a negative impact on mental health by promoting stress, anxiety, and depression. This creates both an opportunity and an impetus for psychiatrists to work with their communities in addressing the impact of climate change on mental health and to advocate for policies to address the threats climate change poses, said David A. Pollack, M.D., Professor Emeritus for Public Policy at Oregon Health and Science University, in a presentation titled “Climate and Mental Health: What Will You Do?” at APA’s online 2021 Annual Meeting.

“Climate change is a major social determinant of health and mental health, and building community resilience is a key component in public mental health efforts to address the health risks of climate change,” Pollack said. “Although individual prevention and treatment is important, system change is the greatest need, and work at the community and societal levels is the most important.”

Pollack offered tips on how to communicate about climate change effectively.

“It doesn’t really help to talk about polar bears on shrinking ice floes or an island community far off that is experiencing rising sea levels. Just scaring people with a list of various harms is usually not very productive either,” he said. “Figuring out what’s in the listener’s best interest may be the most effective way to address it. Helping people to recognize, through a motivational interviewing approach, what they’ve experienced and how it may be harming them can have a positive impact.”

Surveys have shown that discussing the health impacts of climate change may be the most effective way to change opinions, Pollack said.

“[Discussing health impacts] tends to be the most robust, persuasive argument to get people off the denial dime and to be more focused on what they can do. [They will think] ‘This affects my health, my children’s health, and the future of our society and our species,’” he said.

Pollack discussed the concept of eco-anxiety.

“There is more and more evidence that people are aware of climate change and the risks it poses, and they are becoming more frightened for the future. They are also becoming more traumatized by acute extreme weather events and other disasters,” he said. Yet he cautioned that most people who are affected this way are not irrational. “They have few impairments in functioning and do not have a psychiatric illness, so they do not need medications or psychotherapy unless they do become impaired.”

Pollack said that climatic events can contribute to several mental health conditions in children and youth, including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, substance use, and the cognitive impacts of exposure to neurotoxicants.

“These can lead to problems with emotional regulation, cognition, learning, behavior, language development, and academic performance. Together, these create predispositions to adverse adult mental health outcomes, so it’s important to pay attention to this and to intervene in ways that will help children,” he said. ■