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    Climate Emotions: How climate change affects mental health

    September 14, 2019

    From fear and anxiety to hope and healing – a series examining our complex responses to climate change, and how those responses will shape how we act.

    By Martha Henriques

    There is an aspect of climate change that many of us have been neglecting. Even if you read the news on the myriad ways that climate breakdown has already changed weather patterns, damaged livelihoods and contributed to extinctions, you might have missed it.It’s our emotional response to climate change. For people whose lives are already changing for the worse, climate change takes a heavy mental toll. Even for those much more protected from the immediate effects – typically in rich, developed nations – there are reports of growing numbers of people seeking treatment for climate anxiety.At first, this might seem a little indulgent. “The world is burning, and you want to talk about feelings?” some may ask.In Climate Emotions, we hear from writers who have experienced a range of responses. They ask whether there are ways to heal the negative emotions and mental health challenges that can accompany climate breakdown. The good news, they report, is that there are ways to alleviate such feelings. Often the solutions involve ramping up one’s own efforts to mitigate climate change.

    Climate change: Heatwave made 'at least' five times more likely by warming

    By Matt McGrath

    Last week's record breaking heat wave across much of Europe was made "at least five times" more likely to happen by climate change, say scientists. Their rapid attribution study says that rising temperatures "super-charged" the event, making it more likely to happen than through natural variability alone. Heat waves in June are now about 4C hotter than they used to be, the researchers said. Globally, the average temperature for June was the highest on record.

    Heatwaves naturally occur in summertime but last week's event in many European countries was unprecedented because it happened so early, and the recorded temperatures were so high. Records were broken at locations in France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Spain. The new French record, established at Gallargues-le-Montueux last Friday, was more than 1.5C above the previous high mark.Much of the concern about the heat focused on France, with red alerts in several areas, many schools were closed, exams were postponed and health minister Agnès Buzyn warned that "everyone is at risk".The immediate cause of the heatwave was the weather, with hot air drawn in from northern Africa, caused by high pressure over central Europe and a storm stalling over the Atlantic.

    By lucky coincidence, the authors of this new study happened to be in Toulouse, France, at a conference on climate change and extreme events. The researchers, members of the World Weather Attribution Group decided to use the opportunity to analyses the link between human-induced climate change and the heat wave. They defined the heat wave as the highest three-day averaged daily mean temperature in June, arguing that this is a better indicator of health impacts than maximums or minimums.

    The researchers compared the observations of temperatures recorded during the month of June with climate models that can show how the world would be without the human influence on the climate. They found that, over France, the probability of having a heatwave had increased by at least a factor of five. However, the researchers say that this influence could be much higher still, by a factor of 100 or more. "We are very confident that this lower boundary of factor five is valid - but we are not confident we can say much more than that," said Dr Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute."The reason we are fairly careful is because we found fairly large discrepancies between the modelled properties of heatwaves and the observed properties of heatwaves. They all show stronger heatwaves but the trend in the observations is much larger than in the trends in the model."

    The scientists say that the observations indicate a heatwave trend of around 4C in June, where the models show a much lower trend.According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, June generally was more than 2 degrees above the long term average. Globally the temperature was also the highest for June on record, being about 0.1C higher than 2016.Heatwaves in the 1970s and 1980s in Europe were limited somewhat because of what's termed aerosol cooling. This is essentially the impact of air pollution which for a number of years exerted a cooling influence. However, as the air has become clearer, heatwaves have come back with a vengeance.

    According to those involved with this study, this trend in heatwaves is likely to get worse."We experienced a heatwave whose intensity could become the norm in the middle of the century," said Dr Robert Vautard, Senior Scientist, CNRS, France."The new record of 45.9C set in France last Friday is one more step to confirmation that, without urgent climate mitigation actions, temperatures in France could potentially rise to about 50°C or more in France by the end of the century."The researchers believe that if global warming continues to the 2C level envisioned in the Paris climate agreement, heatwaves like the one experienced last week will become the norm in June.


    Climate change is threatening mental health

    People's anxiety and distress about the implications of climate change are undermining mental health and well-being, according to a new federal report reviewing existing research on the topic. Issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the report is the first time the federally mandated group has published an assessment solely focused on climate change and health.

    The report is notable for another reason, too: It contains a chapter devoted to mental health and well-being, a significant step forward for an assessment of this type, says lead author Daniel Dodgen, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. "I think people realize that if you're going to talk about health, you have to talk about mental health," he says

    The report also found that: Exposure to climate- and weather-related natural disasters can result in mental health consequences such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. A significant proportion of people affected by those events develop chronic psychological dysfunction.Some people are at higher risk for mental health consequences from weather-related disasters. Among them are 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.Representations of climate change in the media and popular culture can also influence a person's stress response and mental well-being.Extreme heat increases both physical and mental health problems in people with mental illness, raising the risk of disease and death. In part, that's because many psychoactive prescription medications impair the body's ability to regulate temperature.

    Connecting the dots

    While environmental psychologists are pleased to see an emphasis on mental health and well-being, the findings were not unexpected. "When it comes to climate change and mental health, the picture that emerges when you connect the dots is not surprising," says Susan Clayton, PhD, an environmental psychologist and chair of the environmental studies program at the College of Wooster in Ohio, and co-author of the 2014 APA/ecoAmerica report Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change

    . "It's just that people aren't connecting the dots."Joseph Reser, PhD, a psychologist at Griffith University in Australia and a contributing author of the report, agrees that more needs to be done to flesh out the connection, both for the public and for other experts in the climate change community. Most of the people working in this sphere are biophysical scientists or public health experts who are not necessarily aware of the psychological research that has been amassed over the last several decades, he says. "Many climate change researchers talk about the human dimensions of climate change, but rarely is it a psychologically informed discussion."

    As psychologists continue the push to inform that discussion, Reser says he'd like to see more focus on what people are experiencing now. Many people think of climate change as a looming threat, he says, when it's actually something we're well in the midst of. "People have been concerned and distressed about climate change for several decades, but there's been little monitoring of those psychological impacts," he says. "Climate change is an ongoing threat, and the psychological implications are occurring here and now."

    Bob Doppelt, coordinator of the International Transformational Resilience Coalition, a global coalition of resilience researchers and practitioners focused on building human resilience for climate change, is also eager to better understand the psychological aspects of climate change. "The report is a significant step forward," he says. "Now we need to scale it up and turn it into policy and program proposals" that help people prepare for, cope with and recover from the inevitable changes we face, he says.

    To that end, his group is hosting the First International Conference on Building Personal and Psychosocial Resilience for Climate Change at APA's Capital View Conference Center Nov. 3–4, in Washington, D.C. "We do need disaster management, but there's no way we're going to respond to every big weather event and treat everyone who is impacted — we can't even do that now," he says. "We know how to help people learn resilience and increase their capacity to cope with uncertainty and trauma. Given what's coming at us, a major focus has to be on prevention tools."

    'Eco-anxiety': how to spot it and what to do about it

    .Meanwhile, an academic paper on climate change - that is so grim it apparently resulted in people going to therapy - has gone viral, with some reports suggesting it has been downloaded more than 110,000 times.In the words of the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who founded the school strike for climate movement in 2018: “Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic.”

    And, it seems, some people are indeed panicking, but, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue and mindful of their position as just one person on a planet of billions, they feel powerless. This has led to the phenomenon of ‘eco-anxiety’, described by Psychology Today as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”.

    Anxiety disorders more generally vary in severity and, according to Anxiety UK, more than 1 in 10 British adults are likely to experience a "disabling anxiety disorder" during the course of their life.No stats are available on the prevalence of eco-anxiety, but some experts have noted an increase in public anxiety around climate change. Professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, Susan Clayton, co-authored a 2017 report titled Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. She says: "We can say that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change, and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing.”

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - the guide mental health professionals use to make diagnoses in the US - does not yet include ‘eco-anxiety’ as a specific condition, but the American Psychological Association produced a 2017 report detailing the impacts of climate change on mental health which made reference to the term ‘eco-anxiety’. The glossary describes it as "a chronic fear of environmental doom".

    It describes it as a source of stress caused by “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations”. It adds that some people “are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”

    It's possibly unsurprising, since it's hard to read the landmark 2018 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which called for “urgent and unprecedented changes” to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of 45% by 2030 (11 years from now) without feeling some degree of uncertainty. That's the minimum we need to do if we want to keep the increase in global warming to 1.5C, beyond which the report warned of catastrophic results including flooding, extreme weather events, drought and famine.

    Debra Roberts, lead author of the IPCC report, said at the time: “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now... I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”

    "I’ve noticed a great increase of clients needing to talk about eco-anxiety since the IPCC report at the end of last year," says Mary Jayne Rust, a British eco-psychologist. "Mostly, they are in need of talking it through with a therapist who is knowledgeable about the issues. I think it is a massive thing to live with the suspicion that (as some of my younger clients have said), ‘We’re completely screwed’. I suspect it might be part of the reason for binge-drinking epidemics, and other addictions, for example. There is a general feeling that the future is so uncertain and it’s extremely hard to live with."

    Hilda Burke, an UKCP and BACP accredited psychotherapist, added that she has also “noticed an increasing number of clients expressing anxiety over the state of the planet, and indeed its survival.”Among sufferers of eco-anxiety, there is certainly not a mood of complacency, but more of frustration.

    Sam Johnston, from Manchester, spoke to BBC Radio 1 for a documentary about eco-anxiety: “When you go to sleep, but you start thinking about everything - the state of the planet, really, and the potential future of it - and knowing that there's only so much you can do as one person. I think that's the anxiety - because you just feel a bit powerless in it all.”It can even affect professionals working in the field. Tim Gordon, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, embarks on trips that many would dream of: studying life in incredible settings like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, or the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

    However, for him, it’s tinged with sadness, because "what we find is that we're documenting the rapid decline of these places. A lot of the time, you're kind of numb to it." He continued in his interview with BBC Radio 1: "You've spent so many months doing it and you just get on with it - you know, you've got a job to do. But then occasionally, for no particularly good reason, it'll strike - you just float into the middle of the water, look around you and think: ‘Wow, it's all dying’.

    “There's been times that you cry into your mask because you look around and realise how tragic it is.”For Sam, the anxiety manifests itself in physical ways. “Recently, I'm struggling to fall asleep naturally,” he says. “I probably get a bout of heart palpitations - like, once a year.”So, if you feel ‘eco-anxiety’ might be impacting your mental health, what steps can you take to counteract it?The NHS offers advice on treatments for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and medication.

    However, scientists such as Owen Gaffney, co-author of a paper which details achievable steps and suggestions for governments, businesses and individuals to change their behaviours to slow warming, believes that people should not feel hopeless about the situation and that individual choices can have a positive impact on the planet.An illustration a person sat holding their knees in front of the Earth circled by polluting factoriesBBC THREE He told BBC Three: “Eco-anxiety is the right response to the scale of the challenge. But I am an optimist. We live in an age where individuals have more power than at any time in history. Look at your sphere of influence - employer, networks, family - and influence them. We don’t need to convince 100% of people, only 25%, then an idea can go from marginal to mainstream.”

    He insists that people should remain positive, saying: “The science is loud, clear and simple: we need to halve global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030. All the solutions exist to do that, and if we implement them then more people will be living in cleaner cities, eating healthy diets and working in resilient, buoyant economies.”

    Duncan Geere, who edited the report, adds: “I totally understand why people might feel powerless in the face of climate change. It feels like anything you do is totally insignificant compared to the scale of the challenge we face. And it's true that political leaders and big businesses bear the bulk of the responsibility.However, while acknowledging that “political leaders and big businesses bear the bulk of the responsibility,” he outlines three things that you can do, as an individual, to help make a change, and to reassert control over your feelings.

     “Firstly, make climate change a factor in the decisions you make around what you eat, how you travel, and what you buy. Secondly, talk about climate change with your friends, family and colleagues. Finally, demand that politicians and companies make it easier and cheaper to do the right thing for the climate.”As marine biologist Tim says: "I'd be lying if they said that there wasn't a lot of time when you think, ‘Why do we bother’? But, when you sit down, chat to other scientists and have a bit of a think about it, you realise that there's a huge amount that we can still do. Yes, these places are in trouble. But it's in our power to protect what's left and make a meaningful difference. And that's why we do this. That's why we carry on.”

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