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Can Climate Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health? A View From History

Can Climate Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health? A View From History

It is hard to look at a newspaper or a news magazine/blog these days without coming across an article that touches on climate change. The nature, swiftness, and scale of the changes to our environment, reputable experts agree, hold dire consequences for the earth’s organisms, including, of course, human beings. The CDC warns that the health effects of disruptions to existing ecosystems “include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.”1 It is clear that unless things change radically in the coming decades, psychiatry—like other branches of medicine—will have to accommodate itself to these new realities.

Can Climate Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health?
The notion that climate could affect mental health is not new, but rather dates back to antiquity. The ancient Greeks generally believed that along with blood (what we might deem “heredity”), the geographical and meteorological features of a region contributed to the physical and moral characteristics of individuals and groups. Herodotus (c. 484-425 bce) famously quoted King Cyrus as saying that “soft countries breed soft men,” referring quite literally to the soil of such territories.2(p423) It was the Hippocratic tradition of medicine, however, that made an influential medical philosophy of the maxim. The Hippocratic treatise On Airs, Waters, and Places (c. 400 bce) begins by emphasizing the need for physicians to inform themselves about the physical properties of the locale in which they were working and the effects these elements had on local inhabitants:

Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year, and what effects each of them produces for they are not at all alike, but differ much from themselves in regard to their changes. Then the winds, the hot and the cold, especially such as are common to all countries, and then such as are peculiar to each locality. We must also consider the quali-ties of the waters, for as they differ from one another in taste and weight, so also do they differ much in their qualities. In the same manner, when one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun; for its influence is not the same whether it lies to the north or the south, to the rising or to the setting sun. These things one ought to consider most attentively, and concerning the waters which the inhabitants use, whether they be marshy and soft, or hard, and running from elevated and rocky situations, and then if saltish and unfit for cooking; and the ground, whether it be naked and deficient in water, or wooded and well watered, and whether it lies in a hollow, confined situation, or is elevated and cold; and the mode in which the inhabitants live, and what are their pursuits, whether they are fond of drinking and eating to excess, and given to indolence, or are fond of exercise and labor, and not given to excess in eating and drinking.3

As historian Andrew Wear4 has noted, the Hippocratic tradition spoke of the soil and human beings in similar medical terms, understanding each to stand in a natural correspondence with one another, a correspondence that also implied a cause-and-effect relationship. This line of thinking was carried forward through the middle ages and into early modern Europe. Not surprisingly perhaps, British writers at the time widely considered England to possess the most ideal climate, which helped account for the supposed fact that its residents possessed the most admirable qualities (“strength of body” and “sincerity of behavior”).

After some of the sons and daughters of England made their way to the New World in the 17th century, some claimed that English bodies enjoyed a special affinity for the land there and that New England air could cure the kinds of “cold, phlegmatic, and melancholic diseases” to which the English were prone. Once large-scale death occurred following brutal winters in North America; however, climatological theory was used to lend support to the idea that the English might in fact be incapable of acclimatizing themselves to the region.4


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