There is no shortage of evidence for the elevated and sustained psychological trauma, mental illness, distress, and anxiety about climate change.
The scale of climate change and its devastation has become increasingly apparent. As we witness tenuous and inadequate movement toward effective responses, it is clear that both places and people are falling apart. The emotional suffering from climate change is growing rapidly, and it is alarming from more than a humanitarian perspective. Emotional and social bandwidth is vital for tackling climate change. People must adapt, endure, transform, and find hope through these challenges if they are to survive in a humane and effective manner. The emotional and social challenges of these tasks—our psychiatric work—have been a neglected part of climate efforts.
Recently, however, a global network that was formed over the past few months—COP2, or “Care of People x Planet”1—has started to work with the Race to Resilience to change that, and at great scale. The Race to Resilience, an initiative that came out of the United Nations (UN) Climate Change High-Level Champions, is a massive global mobilization to implement physical resilience of built infrastructures and systems for the most climate-vulnerable 4 billion people on the planet by 2030.2
Race to Resilience and COP2 are working to add a target: to grow capacity for psychological resilience and to reach 4 billion people. The need to do so was spotlighted at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) as the Race to Resilience announced its key objective: the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda. A roadmap of how to spread and embed psychological resilience tools and methods across all that work will reflect input from across COP2 regional hubs as well as a network of subject focus work groups, coordinated through the Billion Minds Project at Columbia University. The goal is to have this roadmap ready to deliver, with early adopters, at COP28.
With a mushrooming civil society network coming together through these hubs with more than 250 organizations so far, COP2 intends to capture the diversity of mobilized civic psychological muscle that needs to converge around the “social climate” problem that underlies the climate problem.3
These organizations reflect the long overdue range and diversity of perspectives and civic presence necessary for community mental health: those working toward social justice, economic fairness, gender equity, sustainable peace, and environmental and climate justice, and protecting Indigenous rights, cultures, and places. They include youth activists, networks focusing on well-being economics, and those working on global mental health, sustainable development, “inner development,” and public health. All are bonded together in seeking to nurture psychological resilience and mental health as vital, measurable, and addressable aspects of the fight for a sustainable future. Through these regional hubs and lived experience leaders, COP2 will be an ongoing global space and platform for sharing, learning, and managing the psychological complexities and possibilities of human action in support of a robust social climate.
The destructive path of climate change is inequitable. It forces a clear-eyed look at the social determinants of disadvantage and adversity as the drivers of trauma and social paralysis that they are. Exploitation of one human group by another recapitulates the destructive exploitation of nature that has destroyed the health of the planet, and exploited groups suffer the most. Climate injustices capture the need to rethink equity in economies, civic empowerment, and participation in government, as well as to tackle forms of oppression within and across communities so that resilient individuals can become the backbone of resilient places.
Among the backbone psychological capabilities to cope, adapt, and problem solve are psychological flexibility and critical consciousness, adaptive and prosocial mindsets, emotional strength and resilience, and collective approaches to heal mental illness and buffer trauma.4,5 These need purposeful nurturing, and organized psychiatry needs to pull up a seat at this table.
For psychiatrists, the climate mental health agenda challenges and stretches the typical framing of “mental health and climate change.” There is no shortage of evidence for the elevated and sustained psychological trauma, mental illness, distress, and anxiety about climate change—experiences that are epidemic among youth and increasingly impairing the rest of society.6 But climate mental health must be about much more than mental illness. It must also be about societal damage and the urgent need for new forms of psychosocial resources and power if high-level policy aims are to translate into the ground-level realities enacted by real people. It must grasp what the UN Human Development Report 2021/2022 framed as the “massive assault on mental well-being” and its central place as an obstacle to humanity’s ability to meet the “demands of shaping our future in a transforming world.”7
There are solutions waiting to be put to use. These include a long-overdue revolution in access to mental health care that sees mental health as the work of a whole community. Empowerment must come first: It is itself an antidote to despair. Add to that new roles for us: to enable others to put to work well-proven methods that show how skills for caring for mental illness, and the steps to prevent it and to nurture durable capabilities for mental well-being and resilience, can be put in the hands of all people, alongside their own cultural knowledge, to use to support each other.8 People are waiting with hands open. The race is on.
Dr Belkin is director of the Billion Minds Project at Columbia University and chair of COP2.
1. COP2 | People x Planet. COP2. Accessed October 30, 2022. https://www.cop2.org/
2. Climate Champions. Race to resilience: catalysing a step-change in global ambition to build the resilience of 4 billion people by 2030. Climate Champions. January 25, 2021. Accessed October 30, 2022. https://climatechampions.unfccc.int/race-to-resilience-launches/
3. Belkin G. Leadership for the social climate. N Engl J Med. 2020;382:1975-1977.
4. Clayton S, Manning C, Speiser M, Hill AN. Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, Responses. 2021 ed. American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, ecoAmerica. Accessed October 30, 2022. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/mental-health-climate-change.pdf
5. Lawrance DE, Thompson R, Fontana G, Jennings DN. The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice. Grantham Institute briefing paper No 36. 2021. Accessed October 30, 2022. https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/bitstream/10044/1/88568/9/3343%20Climate%20change%20and%20mental%20health%20BP36_v6.pdf
6. Biglan A, Johansson M, Van Ryzin M, Embry D. Scaling up and scaling out: consilience and the evolution of more nurturing societies. Clin Psychol Rev. 2020;81:101893.
7. Human Development Report 2021-22. United Nations Development Programme. September 8, 2022. Accessed October 30, 2022. https://hdr.undp.org/content/human-development-report-2021-22
8. Singla DR, Kohrt BA, Murray LK, et al. Psychological treatments for the world: lessons from low- and middle-income countries. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2017;13:149-181.