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  • Trisha Bhujle

Where Civilians and Scientists Unite: Building Resilience in the Face of Climate-Caused Depression

Swinomish tribal senator Alana Quintasket has spent the majority of her life immersed in the environment that surrounds her home in La Conner, Washington. Some of her most cherished childhood memories lie in her interactions with the species that once thrived on her tribe’s terrain – the flourishing organismal diversity characteristic of the natural world. Quintasket’s interconnectedness with her surroundings extends not only to embracing their beauty but also to sustainably harvesting their resources, as she and her family have long relied on the aquatic organisms residing in nearby waters for nourishment. In times when other food sources are scarce due to unfavorable weather conditions, the thousands of salmon and crabs inhabiting the streams flowing through the Swinomish Tribe’s homeland provide Quintasket with a comforting sense of food security that cannot easily be replaced. Rapidly rising temperatures in recent years, however, have caused fewer and fewer of these organisms to populate the streams that support the Swinomish Tribe. Faced with the dwindling of such a precious bounty of food, the tribe has been forced to decide where and how it will continue to feed its members. “I feel depressed and powerless because I can’t control what’s happening in the oceans or what’s happening beyond,” Quintasket said in a New York Times publication. As she continues to witness the hardships her community is now experiencing to simply survive, she has little idea of how to move forward (Kerr et al. 2022).

Quintasket’s story only begins to demonstrate the sobering reality of the extent to which anthropogenic activities are having cascading effects on the surrounding environment. In the process of cluttering otherwise untouched landscapes with industry and automobiles and choking otherwise pristine water bodies with the products of fossil fuels, humans have released an excess of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributed to rapidly warming temperatures that most scientists agree will be difficult to reverse. Wildfires are ravaging previously healthy forests, clouding the sky with smoke that suffocates children’s lungs. Floods are consuming entire cities and countries, sending homes and their inhabitants deep underwater. Freezes are shattering otherwise warm areas with intolerable temperatures, forcing people to lock their doors despite minimal access to clean water or electricity. In their quest to conquer the resource-abundant lands that once brimmed with life of every imaginable kind, humans have threatened the living world – and themselves – in unprecedented ways.

Yet it is not only extreme weather events but also the gradual loss of arable land, the emergence of water-borne diseases, and the failure of climate adaptation initiatives that have generated a new problem that targets those who caused it to begin with. More and more people, upon witnessing firsthand the effects of climate change on their own communities, are coming to realize the severity of global warming and its potential consequences for themselves and their children. These realizations, culminating in feelings of depression and powerlessness that linger long after a catastrophic event has passed, have made people fearful – even hopeless – about the bleak future that lies ahead of them. Research conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as countless stories from individuals who have been disproportionately harmed by global warming, make it clear that the effects of climate change on depression and powerlessness are just beginning to emerge. As people continue to fall prey to the devastating psychological outcomes of rising temperatures, it is only through sustained collaboration among scientists, policymakers, and their constituents that we will be able to avert the worst consequences – both mental and environmental – of the climate crisis.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report details several environmental issues that the organization is highly confident are worsening mental health in people across almost every continent. Natural disasters, though at the extreme end of the environmental spectrum, are particularly noteworthy for the overwhelming distress that they can induce in their victims. Aside from displacing some from their communities and hospitalizing countless others who are in desperate need of medical attention, these disasters also threaten people’s access to the fundamental resources they need for survival. The ensuing loss of people’s family members or personal property leads to feelings of depression and grief that undermine overall well-being (IPCC 2022). The landfall of Cyclone Idai on Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani District, as explained by the WHO, is one such example of the cascading mental effects of natural disasters. An intimate interview of Wonder Muyambo, a subsistence farmer in the region, revealed that cyclone Idai destroyed his home and killed several of the animals on which he depended. This in turn thrust him and his family into poverty due to their lack of appropriate shelter and food. Without a stable source of income from the sale of his goats and crops, Muyambo quickly faced the challenge of supporting himself and his children. The others in his community encountered a similar hardship. Burdened by the added expense of rebuilding their houses and purchasing food for their families, many people in the Chimanimani District began to struggle with depression. Hardly two weeks of torrential rains and unbearable wind gusts had, in effect, threatened the mental health of this innocent community in ways that would take years – if not longer – to remedy (WHO 2022).

While Cyclone Idai demonstrates the devastating long-term psychological damage that short-term disasters can generate, natural disasters form only a fraction of many other climate-change-associated issues that can cause people to experience depression and powerlessness. In fact, global warming is gradually altering landscapes throughout the world in increasingly irreversible ways, leading people to feel foreign to the places that they once called home. While often described as “solastalgia,” this loss of a sense of belonging is highly intertwined with a perceived loss of control over the environment. Highlighted in a presentation by National Geographic photographer Pete Muller, the members of the Quechua community in Peru are quite familiar with both of these feelings. As a part of their annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival, a group of individuals trek to the glaciers of the Andes Mountains to pray for a successful new year and harvest season. These glaciers hold important spiritual value to the Quechua people, and their rapid melting in recent years has threatened the community’s ability to practice the rituals that pose fundamental value to their culture. Norberto Vega, one of the Quechua people’s leaders, described in an interview with Muller how just the thought of “the inability to do anything” completely consumes him as he witnesses the glaciers retreat year after year. “Sometimes I get so sad that I want to cry,” Vega said solemnly. Surrounded by the depletion of a component of the natural world that is so deeply intertwined with their heritage, Vega and the rest of the Quechua people are feeling a nearly indescribable powerlessness that has its roots in climate change. The extreme extent of glacial melting, combined with the lack of urgent action to combat it, has left the Quechua people feeling lost, hopeless, and depressed – unable to do anything but watch (National Geographic Society 2020).

The interconnectedness of climate change, depression, and powerlessness extends to a seemingly infinite number of other challenges as well. According to the WHO, issues as diverse as air pollution, water scarcity, violence in afflicted areas, and the breakdown of established social systems can all be followed by significant mental health consequences (WHO 2022). Even simply learning about climate change without experiencing any of its adverse effects is correlated with higher anxiety levels. A group of researchers in universities spanning the United States and the United Kingdom discovered this when they conducted a study of 10000 people aged 16 to 25 in ten countries. Their results indicated that nearly 84% of young people are worried about climate change, and over half of them feel powerless – among other overwhelmingly negative emotions – when they think about the future of the climate crisis. Many respondents, knowing they would soon be forced to bear the brunt of the effects of current anthropogenic activities, even went as far as to argue that climate change was affecting their ability to succeed in school, at home, or in the workplace (Hickman et al. 2021). Though young people are certainly not alone in their perceived loss of power, the feelings of helplessness and dejection that they experience far too often render it difficult for them to share the same happiness that older generations enjoyed. Given the alarming trajectory of the acceleration of climate change, the perspectives of current youth will thus be instrumental in developing solutions that ensure their future is secure.

Apart from young people, the IPCC and WHO both emphasize that other groups such as women, the elderly, Indigenous communities, and low-income households are equally – if not more – vulnerable to the mental health effects of the climate crisis due to their disproportionate exposure to undernutrition, insufficient water, and poor sanitation. However, these individuals often have little to no say in the policies that are implemented to address environmental issues (IPCC 2022; WHO 2022). Consequently, there may be tremendous value in encouraging healthy discourse between those who are most harmed by the climate crisis and the scientists and politicians who are distanced from it. By bridging the gap between the affected and the detached, people can cultivate communities that are better prepared to respond to future climate issues and that are less likely to succumb so quickly to the devastating mental health effects that accompany them. Cross-sectoral collaboration is similarly important. Climate scientists should collaborate not only with other scientists and politicians but also with farmers, urban planners, engineers, and doctors, among others, to integrate the expertise of a wide variety of people into the decision-making process. A farmer may, for instance, have a unique perspective on the powerlessness he feels when all of his crops are lost to drought, and a doctor may have a unique perspective on potential treatment options for patients suffering from climate-induced depression — both of which are invaluable in forming policies that consider more than just the science. The same rationale applies to governments: While local, state, and national governments do currently aim to protect their territories against the worst of the climate crisis, greater cooperation between all levels of government has its benefits. Cities and towns could obtain additional funding for specific projects targeted towards locals, while national governments could gain a better understanding of the various impacts of climate change on communities at the local level. In erasing the disconnect between scientists, policymakers, and civilians, people across all ages, backgrounds, sectors, and locations would be able to more successfully implement sustainable initiatives that are targeted to their community’s unique psychological needs.

Improving both the quality of and access to mental health care are additional avenues to minimize the feelings of depression and powerlessness that a changing climate can cause. The IPCC and the WHO concur that current healthcare providers are insufficiently trained in how to respond effectively to the mental health effects of climate change, and the WHO goes one step further in stating that only two percent of government health funds are allocated towards mental health. To address the former, hospital staff, psychologists, primary care physicians, and other medical professionals should be required to receive further education on the plethora of mental health complications associated with climate change, as well as the environmental and social issues that themselves are the culprits (IPCC 2022, WHO 2022). While doctors may, for instance, prescribe antidepressants to a typical patient with depression, their treatments may differ noticeably for individuals whose depression is a result of environmental issues. A patient whose surroundings have been destroyed by mining operations may be encouraged to spend more time looking at images of serene environments, while a patient who has been forced to migrate due to a natural disaster may be encouraged to video chat with former neighbors more frequently. Likewise, increasing funding for mental health services would allow for the establishment of mental health facilities in regions that lack them. Perhaps a portion of mental health funds could even go towards expanding governmental healthcare coverage for those who live in proximity to healthcare facilities but cannot afford to receive treatment. This, combined with more focused mental health training, could enable medical professionals to more effectively tailor their treatments to a greater number of patients, thereby bringing quality care to those who need it most.

What unites all of these solutions is their need for enhanced communication with the general public. The WHO briefly suggests that governments and scientists alike educate civilians on the potential risks associated with climate change events and the coping mechanisms that can minimize adverse psychological outcomes (WHO 2022). Although it may seem counterintuitive to convey to people the ways in which climate change can damage their mental health – might some people begin to worry just from being informed? – these steps are necessary to make civilians and scientists more comfortable discussing the issue and more able to act against it. Communities that experience high rates of depression following major flooding events may, for instance, teach people how to keep themselves and their property safe amidst rising water levels. Meanwhile, in areas where depression is largely a result of food insecurity, governments might consider establishing community gardens that encourage people to become more involved in local food production efforts. Though these solutions may show promise in improving people’s mental health and resilience, they cannot be implemented without healthy conversation among scientists, medical professionals, and the general public. Such discourse requires that scientists communicate calmly and with minimal complex jargon, and that civilians listen to the science and share their unique perspectives on how climate change is impacting their communities. In other words, conversation, though a seemingly simple solution, may be the solution to making ordinary individuals more actively involved in the science and policymaking that previously excluded them.

Although research on the interaction of climate change and mental health is still ongoing, previous and current environmental degradation has revealed that climate change affects mental health in profound and perhaps irreversible ways. Depression and powerlessness in particular are two interrelated psychological outcomes that appear to be increasing not only as people simply become more aware of climate change, but also as their homelands are devastated by natural disasters, droughts, waterborne disease, air pollution, and a myriad of other issues. While prestigious organizations such as the IPCC and the WHO can provide valuable scientific insights on the various ways in which environmental issues can harm people’s mental health, those who experience climate-related hardships firsthand often provide a much more intimate perspective of the “other side” of the climate crisis. Thus, in order to mobilize communities in preparation for future climate challenges, we must facilitate greater conversation between civilians, scientists, and policymakers. We must implement policies that account for vulnerable groups and that support individuals whose communities have been ravaged by disasters. And most importantly, we must take the time to listen to each other. We must listen to the Swinomish Tribe, which is struggling to find fish to feed its families; and to the subsistence farmers in Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani District, whose source of income has been erased by a tropical storm; and to the Quechua Community, whose annual sacred Qoyllur Rit’i rituals are being threatened by retreating glaciers. Combatting the adverse mental health outcomes of the climate crisis is not a one-person, 100-person, or even 1000-person job, but rather one that will require everyone’s willingness to open their minds and their hearts to each other. It is only through sharing these unique worldviews that we may stand a chance in addressing the mental implications of the climate crisis. And it is only through acting urgently on these conversations that we may hope to finally develop the widespread resilience that our world demands.


Bibliography

  • Corvalan, Carlos (2022). “Mental Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief.” World Health Organization, pp. 3-11, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240045125.

  • Hickman, Caroline et al (2021). “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey.” The Lancet Planetary Health, Vol. 5, Issue 12, Elsevier B.V., https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3.

  • Kerr, Sarah et al (2022). “The Unseen Toll of a Warming World.” New York Times. Amin, Sameen et al (editors), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/09/us/mental-health-climate-change.html.

  • Muller, Pete (2020). “Through the Lens: Solastalgia.” YouTube, uploaded by National Geographic Society, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsN6UmCJsx4.

  • Pörtner, Hans-Otto et al (2022). “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sixth Assessment Report, Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.

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