Jan 21st, 2020, 11:09 AM

Climate Change and Mental Health: Is There a Connection?

By Caitlin Kelly
What role does climate change play in worsening mental health? Image Credit: Michael Driver
The Rapid Deterioration of Our Planet May Have Debilitating Effects on Mental Health

This article contains mention of suicidal ideation.

We are living in a changing world. Technological, social, and cultural changes are constantly being thrown at young people. In this rapidly evolving society, studies conducted by the Global Change Research Program prove that the mental health of young people has been progressively declining. In the United Kingdom alone, 20% of adolescents were found to have a mental illness. In America, the same statistic was found.

In the midst of these changes is the ever-looming threat of climate change. With the aid of social media, people all over the world receive news about environmental disasters to their smartphones and computers. Each new catastrophe is available to the general public in real-time.

As the days pass, news of the destruction and deterioration of our planet is fed to us at a rate that is hard to keep up with. This is accompanied by a rapid decrease in the mental well-being of today's youth, as stated above. So the question is: is there a connection between climate change and the diminishing mental health of our youth? 

No nature, no future. Image Credit: Glassholic

To those who live far from the visible effects of climate change, mainly in economically stable countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, it is easy to detach oneself from the reality of climate change. However, since November of this year, Australian bushfires have been absolutely devastating entire towns and species.

Over 3,000 homes have been destroyed and 28 lives have been taken. This tragedy can be traced directly back to the heat and droughts that climate change causes. The Australian State of New South Wales is the most populous state in Australia. It was found that 1,588 homes have been destroyed in that geographic location alone.

A bush fire. Image Credit: Steve Slater (Wildlife Encounters)

Millions of species native to Australia have been harmed by these fires. Almost a third of the population of koalas have died, according to Federal Environment Minister, Susan Ley. The exact number of species affected is still unknown, but scientists have estimated it to be about a billion.

PTSD is a common side effect for those who have experienced the effects of climate change firsthand. Those who are yet to experience the effects of climate change in person suffer anxiety for the future, and depression can be linked to the loss of species, nature, and human life that occurs as a result. This rapidly progressing change in the climate could even worsen ADHD in people

Extinction of animals can propel those who suffer from mental illness into negativity. Image Credit: Michael Driver

Mallory Boyd, a freshman at AUP, told me she has been thinking about the link between environmental disasters and mental health. She wanted to elaborate on her own mental wellbeing in response to the many climate crises over the years. 

Caitlin Kelly: You said you’ve been thinking about this subject for a while. Could you provide me with some general insight into whether or not you think there’s a link between climate change and the deterioration in mental health among young people?

Mallory Boyd: I think it’s specifically happening among young people. It is a factor that is exacerbating people’s mental illnesses. I don’t necessarily know if it’s causing them, but it’s definitely exacerbating symptoms of a lot of people’s anxiety. Mine, for example. My anxiety comes from perpetual feelings of feeling out of control. And that directly connects to the feeling of not feeling heard. And trying to change their own lifestyles while seeing billions of people around the world continue to participate in mass consumption, deforestation. These are huge factors that could enhance anxiety. 

CK: Have you noticed, among people you know, a decrease in their mental health, and have you talked to anyone about it? 

MB: I have a friend who’s a junior in high school. She doesn’t necessarily feel depressed all the time, but she feels kind of passively suicidal. There’s just a large feeling of apathy. She told me, “I don’t wanna die, but if I did, I wouldn’t care that much.” She explained to me how not just climate change but violence, political corruption, and all these awful things contribute to it. For her, since she does have a history of depression and anxiety, that has transformed into a mood she feels every day. Because of the hopelessness for the future, and that she can’t do anything about it. I feel like that is connected to all the photos and instant news feeds that we get every day.

CK: Many say that mental disorders such as anxiety and depression cannot be caused by events, but rather are something hereditary or a chemical imbalance that people are born with. Do you think it’s possible for depression and anxiety to be caused by an event, or is that only PTSD? 

MB: I think how it’s been explained to me and how I understand it, is your genetics are like gasoline. And some people have that flammable substance and some people don’t. But in the people that do, from their genetics, the events in their life actually light the fire. So I feel like nowadays the distressing state of the environment and the inaction around it is definitely a unique factor that could ignite the fire in the people who already have that fuel present. So I think that’s an explanation on why a lot of young people nowadays are getting diagnosed more and more with mental disorders. 

CK: Regarding the recent bush fires in Australia, could you explain a little how you felt when you found out about them?

MB: The first headline I saw was about how over 100,000 koalas had died. Generally, when you see that, it’s a total bummer and you’re no longer interested in day-to-day activities. For me, though, I have ADHD and certain stimuli will overtake my thoughts. If I hear something like that. And a stressful headline like that can completely overtake my thoughts. Like the rest of the day, I was so distracted. 

CK: Is there anything that you do, or that you suggest we as a generation should do to relieve this anxiety related to climate change? 

MB: Talk to people about it. Talk to your friends about it. And this may also be an opportunity to increase conversation among your peers about your own mental health. Specific anxieties are more unique to individuals. But anxiety caused by a global problem will become more universal. Knowing it’s not an irrational reaction to what’s going on, and knowing that it’s a justified reaction. Hopefully, that will encourage people to come together. It’s cause for actual change to be made.