Editor’s Note: The mental health effects of climate change are immediate, long ranging, and complex. As a premiere psychiatric publication, we were compelled to provide crucial information on the psychiatric sequelae of climate change, which was the genesis of this exclusive series from the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA). We urge you to follow the series in upcoming issues and our website as we cover climate-change related issues such as ethical implications and denial as well as transformational resilience.
Psychiatrists and other mental-health clinicians are being increasingly called upon to respond to patients’ worries about the destabilization of many aspects of our world. Within a longer series about the psychiatric aspects of climate change, this is the first of two articles dealing specifically with climate anxiety. The majority of Americans are now worried about climate change and a record 21%, one in five Americans, are very worried about climate change.1 Recent hurricanes, floods, and wildfires have been reminders of climate change. Although no one event can be solely attributed to climate change, the trend to more severe storms, more heat, and overall destabilization of the climate is clear.2
Our patients are exposed through the news, and sometimes via personal experience, to an increasing pace of climate disasters and species extinctions and to reports of inadequate response by leadership. Patients who are well informed also know that, because of the long existence of many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and because of the many positive feedback loops in the climate system, we are not simply dealing with a “new normal” of increased heat, fires, flooding, and storms. Rather our collective situation is even more serious and urgent, in ways that are difficult to fully take in emotionally. Further adding to this large psychological task of grappling with the reality of climate change is the knowledge that we are all participating in the fossil-fuel–based social, cultural, and economic systems that have brought on and that are worsening this slow-moving disaster.
Understanding the anxiety resulting from this reality
Worry over climate change can be seen as appropriate and is usually not maladaptive. A quantitative and qualitative study done using online surveys showed that people who describe habitual worry about the environment can be functioning quite well. They tend to have pro-environmental attitudes and engage in “pro-environmental behavior.”3
However significant distress over climate change is being described. Some of these descriptions are in populations that are being particularly affected. For instance, indigenous peoples have close relationships to the land and some are losing their lands—cherished aspects of their cultural identities—to climate change, producing significant distress.4
From Australia, where there have been noteworthy droughts, came the first reported climate change delusion: a 17-year-old with delusional guilt about drinking water stopped drinking water.5 In a study of OCD patients in Australia, 28% of the participants in the study had spontaneous descriptions of OCD concerns related to climate change, such as compulsively checking to make sure that the faucets were all the way off or checking lights to make sure electricity was not being wasted.6 A quantitative study of Australians, half of whom lived in urban areas, documented significant distress over climate change, particularly among women, and in those aged younger than 35 years.7
Dr Lewis is Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester, NY, and in private practice in Penn Yan and Ithaca, NY.
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