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Decarbonizing the Mind: The impact of climate change on our mental health

Our global society is facing one of the biggest challenges of our time: climate change. Immediate, bold action and resolute international, and interdisciplinary cooperation are required in order to moderate and, ideally, reverse the potential effects of climate change on our planet and its people.

25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects.

Among these effects, and possibly the least discussed, is the impact on global mental health. Scientists have well-documented the severe mental health consequences of extreme weather events. Because our climate is changing rapidly, extreme weather events such as droughts, flooding, and large storms are likely to become more frequent and intense. Past natural disasters, such as hurricane Katrina, have exposed to us the suffering, both psychical and mental, they can cause. The psychological trauma of such a disaster can lead to severe conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and more prevalently, increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

In addition to direct psychological responses to natural disasters population, the effects of climate change such as displacement and migrations, breakdown of community infrastructure, food scarcity, loss of employment, and poor sense of social support and connectedness have serious consequences for mental health.

Furthermore, climate change will seriously impact inequality in all of its forms. Not everyone experiences climate change in the same way. Like most social and environmental issues, those hit hardest by extreme weather events are also the most vulnerable members of our society. Children, pregnant and postpartum women, people with pre-existing mental illness, people who are economically disadvantaged, those who are homeless, and first responders to the disaster are set to be at higher risk for mental health consequences from weather-related events. Targeting mental health support and mental health literacy campaigns towards these populations is priority in order to prevent health and eventually, gender and economic inequalities from exacerbating.

Retaking control of our minds, retaking care of the environment

More than just climate change affecting our mental health, our mental health condition also affects our ability to deal with the social and environmental challenges that lie ahead of us. For example, studies have shown that anxiety disrupts the prefrontal cortex: the decision-making area of the brain. When anxiety takes over, we are less capable of determining future consequences of current activities, prone to revert to rut-like thinking patterns, and impaired in our ability to plan for the long-term. So we need a sense of mastery over our anxiety to make rational decisions that benefit ourselves, those around us, and the broader natural environment we live and thrive in.

This ability to exert control over distress and anxiety is indispensable for making considered decisions and ultimately, for increasing mental well-being. Even more so, we need our political leaders to prioritize their own mental health and that of the people they represent. After all, their decisions have direct consequences for us all. Our elected representatives are the architects of our reality. They shape the institutions and design the policies that will set the future course of the planet.

The path to building resilience

Climate change is an enormously complex and systemic issue. One that touches upon all aspects of society. Yet we often tend to overlook how it connects to other structural issues including mental health.

Cultivating awareness of the interconnectedness of such issues, and understanding that climate change has and will continue to have far-reaching effects on all facets of personal and public life is crucial. But that idea in itself need not be fear or anxiety-inducing. As outlined in the report by the American Psychological Association, we can give people confidence that they can psychologically prepare for the effects of climate change. This can be achieved by enhancing psychological resilience and building it into every aspect of our social fabric. One way is to inspire people to appraise their own potential to cope and act positively, and spread hopeful messages and practical solutions to act proactively.

And what about our business leaders? We need them to establish organizational cultures that both support and nurture their employees’ well-being and resilience in face of adversity. This starts with business leaders recognizing the importance of their own mental well-being, and encouraging them to speak up, with humility and honesty, about their personal mental health struggles. Business leaders must open up the conversation and support their employees on their learning journeys to well-being and resilience. This way, we empower each other to live up to our full potential, learn to cope with the stresses of daily (work) life, and develop the capacity to tackle the multifaceted challenges ahead of us.

In conclusion: Together towards stronger mental dikes

Mitigating climate change and limiting its psychological impact is a daunting, yet possible undertaking. It requires a global and interdisciplinary approach. We need governments to provide more, and better access to mental health services, particularly for those who are most vulnerable to the mental health consequences of climate change. We need media to spread hopeful messages that inspire action and self-care, rather than induce overwhelming feelings of helplessness and despair. We need businesses and the capital allocators that enable their existence to prioritize the mental wellness and resilience of their employees and partners. And on an individual level, we need to work on strengthening our mental dikes. These will help us better cope with the crashing waves of adversity and protect us against the deepening seas of uncertainty.

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