February 28, 2022
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Ashlee Cunsolo, Founding Dean, School of Arctic & Subarctic Studies, Labrador Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland – Breanne Aylward. PhD Student in Public Health, University of Alberta and Sherilee Harper, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health, University of Alberta

[Excerpts] Climate change poses serious risks to mental well-being. For the first time, a new climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has assessed how climate change is having widespread and cumulative effects on mental health globally.

Over the past decade, research and public interest on the effects of climate change on mental health have been increasing, as the number of individuals and communities exposed and vulnerable to climate change hazards grows.

Weather and climate extremes such as storms, floods, droughts, heat events and wildfires can be traumatic and have immediate impacts on mental health. Slow onset events like changing seasonal and environmental norms, sea level rise and ice patterns can also affect people’s mental well-being.

Growing evidence confirms that the consequences of rapid, widespread and pervasive climate events may include  anxietyPTSDhigher rates of suicidea diminished sense of well-being (stress, sadness)ecological grief, a rise in domestic violence, cultural erosion and diminished social capital and social relations.

Here are three things that the latest IPCC report tells us about climate change and mental health in North America.

  1. There is greater scientific understanding about the ways that climate change IPCCnegatively impacts mental health. Researchers have been able to examine how both climate and weather extremes such as storms, floods, droughts and fires and slower-onset climate changes such as warming temperatures and changing environmental norms interact with people’s vulnerabilities such as socio-economic inequities, age, gender, identity, occupation and health and lead to a diverse range of negative mental health outcomes.
    For example, a synthesis of global literature found that those exposed to flooding events — such as the floods in southern British Columbia in 2021, in Ottawa in 2019 and Alberta in 2013 — experience PTSD, depression and anxiety in the short term and have elevated risks for these mental health outcomes in the long term. Similar mental health outcomes were found for those exposed to wildfires and related smoke, such as the wildfires in the Northwest Territories in 2014, Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016 and Lytton, B.C., in 2021.
  2. The mental health impacts of climate change are unequally distributed. Climate change works across intersecting social determinants of health — factors such as age or gender that influence health and how people live — to disproportionately affect certain groups.
    For example, AR6 [IPCC Sixth Assessment Report] demonstrates that some people and communities are most at risk for increasingly worsening mental health outcomes, due to their proximity to the hazard, their reliance on the environment for livelihood and culture and their socio-economic status:
    Agricultural communities already experiencing drought or changing environmental conditions.
    • People living in areas exposed to wildfires and floods.
    Indigenous Peoples and those closely dependent on the natural environment for livelihoods and     culture
    Women, the elderlychildren and young people and those already experiencing chronic physical and mental health issues.

3. It’s not too late to promote resilience. Climate change is not a distant threat. It’s a growing
reality.  Urgent action is needed to protect the mental health of individuals, communities and
health systems under rapid climate change and support individual and community resilience and
well-being.  Resilience can be enhanced through climate-specific mental health outcomes
training and policy action, which support health systems to enhance individual and community
mental health and well-being.

Moving forward. Based on the available evidence, the mental health impacts from climate change are already widespread and likely to worsen. Even with immediate and strong action towards mitigation and adaptation, climate change will continue to be a serious threat. It is critical that we understand the serious risks that climate change poses to mental well-being and take urgent action to support health systems and enhance individual and community mental health and resilience within a changing climate.

To read more, click on: Rapidly increasing climate change poses a rising threat to mental health, says IPCC