Climate change isn't just impacting our environment. It's also impacting our brains
Climate change isn’t just impacting physical health, but new research shows it’s also having an impact on our mental well-being.
Extreme heat can increase prevalence of suicide, and exacerbate some psychiatric conditions. There is also a correlation between air quality and some neurodevelopmental disorders in children, according to the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society.
But the mental health challenges presented by climate change aren’t just limited to individuals. Severe weather can also impact how people treat others.
“When we look at the rate of violence in particular, we know that for every 1.8 degrees Celsius change, there's a 6% increase in violence and violent crimes across the board,” said Dr. Joshua Wortzel, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health.
“Our understanding of the biology is still in its infancy. But we think that it may have to do with what heat does to different chemicals in the brain like serotonin,” Wortzel said recently on Connecticut Public’s “Where We Live.”
Climate change anxiety is hitting teens hard
The journal Current Psychology defines climate change anxiety as “negative cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses associated with concerns about climate change.”
This is a developing area of research. And although adults and children both experience climate change anxiety, it’s an issue of particular concern for adolescents.
A study, published in 2021 by The Lancet Planetary Health looked at over 10,000 children across the globe found that 59% of respondents were “very” or “extremely worried” about climate change.
Nearly half of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively impacted their daily lives and day-to-day fuinctioning. Three-quarters of the children surveyed said they think the future is frightening, according to the report.
How to manage climate anxiety
Managing climate change anxiety starts with empathy and affirmation. “I think that we need to validate what children are experiencing,” Wortzel said. “In an age-appropriate manner, giving them education about what climate change really is, we need to help children know that they're not alone.”
Another potential way to manage climate anxiety is by getting involved with climate and environmental activism. Volunteer at an event such as a beach clean up or even find a way to contribute to citizen science. Focusing on solutions to climate change can be helpful for children and young adults struggling with climate anxiety.
If you are experiencing anxiety around climate change, you can also join an eco-distress support group. Learn more by visiting the Good Grief Network.
Listen to the full episode of Where We Live: "Understanding how climate change is impacting our health and well-being (and what you can do about it)"
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Connecticut Public Radio’s Catherine Shen contributed to this report.