Research conducted at MIT investigated the connection between climate change impacts like severe weather incidents and mental health conditions. Researchers found that weather conditions like hotter temperatures and severe tropical cyclones can have an impact on mental health. One of the researchers, Nick Obradovich, answered some questions about the study for CleanTechnica.
Why did you want to investigate the relationship between climate change and mental health risks?
For two reasons: 1) Mental health is critically important to human well-being, so it’s an important outcome to examine carefully and 2) Evidence was emerging that temperature could alter both less extreme and more extreme forms of mental health outcomes. We wanted to see if perceived mental health issues — broadly conceived — could also be affected.
In your paper, it was written, “…we observe that the mental health of low-income individuals may be most harmed by a changing climate. However, our data are from a wealthy country with a temperate climate. Regions with less-temperate climates, insufficient resources (51), and greater reliance on ecological systems may see more severe effects of climate change on mental health (28).”
Potentially, is that because people with less means may live in areas which typically are more impacted by severe weather like cyclones, and tropical storms?
This is one possibility, yes. And those who can afford to move away from increasing sea-levels and amplified coastal hazards may do so, leaving those who can’t afford to move behind and exposed to those hazards.
However, we observe that hot temperatures have larger negative effects for low-income individuals, and for that we hypothesize that access to air conditioning — and the ability to afford running it — may play a role.
Also, because they may depend more on ecological systems for their livelihoods like people living in coastal areas who work in fishing, etc.?
Dependence on ecological systems is certainly a factor of vulnerability.
It also states, “…we find that experience with hotter temperatures and added precipitation each worsen mental health, that multiyear warming associates with an increased prevalence of mental health issues, and that exposure to tropical cyclones, likely to increase in frequency and intensity in the future, is linked to worsened mental health.” Does mental health here mean depression, anxiety, or in the case of exposure to tropical cyclones maybe also PTSD?
We measure mental health using the CDC’s question: “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?”
Is one implication of your research that population centers which are located in vulnerable areas like the coasts could or should plan to make mental health resources available to residents before and after tropical cyclones, heat waves or droughts?
I’d argue that added quality and availability of mental health care would not be a bad response to the stressors provided by climate change. There would be many spillover benefits from improving mental health care, too.
What about conducting surveys in impacted areas after tropical cyclones, like what recently happened in the Florida panhandle?
Sounds like a good idea to me.
Some people don’t believe climate change is real, but if their lives are impacted by severe weather which could be linked to climate change, do you think they would be open to seeking mental health support?
Needing mental health care is stigmatized in this country; it is hard to say who would and wouldn’t seek it. We should work to foster a culture that is much more accepting of needing — and receiving — quality mental healthcare.
In your paper, it was stated that “Furthermore, both heat and drought amplify the risk of suicide (28–30), and psychiatric hospital visits increase during hotter temperatures (31–33).” Is this effect seen in people who have a pre-existing mental health condition, or can severe weather contribute to mental health conditions in healthy people?
It is likely that the most severe mental health outcomes (suicide) occur in those who already suffer from mental health issues that are worsened by environmental stressors. Probably the best way to think about this is that severe weather is a societal risk amplifier. This applies to mental health as well.
As climate change impacts increase, it would seem some policy makers would want to become involved to support the most vulnerable populations. Have you had any conversations with policy makers, have any reached out to you?
I haven’t. I’d be more than happy to talk to them if they did reach out.
As sea levels rise and cyclones batter and flood coasts it seems as though many homeowners in these areas will potentially be affected. Is the stress, anxiety and depression sort of inevitable as people experience property damage and loss and maybe even dislocation or can something be done to reduce the mental health risk?
How we respond to traumatic events can be influenced by our own personal resilience and the resilience of our social networks, communities, and neighborhoods. Improving mental health care — throughout the US — will aid those responding to added stress posed by climate change.
Image Credit: Nick Obradovich
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