Mental health effects

Climate change impacts on mental health

The main pathways of climate change impacts on mental health in Europe (see the background report).
Source: EEA elaboration, based on Lawrance et al. (2021) and Berry et al. (2010)

Mental health: the additional burden of climate change

Across the EU countries and the UK, 84 million people are affected by mental health problems (OECD and EC, 2018). Yet, mental health is systematically underrepresented in public budgets and the health care system (WHO, 2018). Climate change is expected to worsen mental health outcomes worldwide (Lawrance et al., 2021: Romanello et al., 2021), in particular for the vulnerable individuals and communities (IPCC, 2022).  

The climate change effects on mental health remain largely unexplored in comparison to the impacts on physical health. This is particularly concerning in light of the increasing population exposure to heat waves, flooding or wildfires, as cases of psychological traumas from any form of climate-related disaster can be 40 times higher than those of physical injury (Lawrance et al., 2021). In addition, the impact of climate change on mental health is most prominent in the case of socially vulnerable communities (Ingle and Mikulewicz, 2020).

Climate change can impact mental health through several pathways: extreme weather events are causing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression; extreme temperatures affect mood, worsen behavioural disorders, increase suicide risk and impact the well-being of those with mental health issues; distress associated with ongoing or anticipated climate and environmental change causing climate anxiety; and impacts associated with changing livelihoods and social cohesion of entire communities. These are described below and covered in more detail in the background report.

Pathways of climate change impacts on mental health

Mental health impacts from losses and damages associated with extreme weather events

Damages, loss of livelihoods and displacement caused by extreme weather events, such as flooding,  can have a significant effect on the mental health of individuals in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression disorders (Fernandez et al., 2015; Tong, 2017). The total number of people in Europe reporting mental disorder as a result of being affected by flood between 1998 and 2018 is estimated at between 1.72 and 10.6 million (Jackson and Devadason, 2019).

Also being affected by forest fires has been linked to higher prevalence of symptoms such as depression, anxiety, hostility, phobic anxiety and paranoia in comparison to those not affected (Papanikolaou et al., 2011), as well as a higher consumption of drugs used to treat sleeping and anxiety disorders  (Caamano-Isorna et al., 2011). The symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety can persist among the exposed population up to several years after the fire (To et al., 2021).

Farmers are often found to be highly vulnerable to mental health risks associated with environmental factors such as droughts (Cianconi et al., 2020), but there are limited studies from Europe that would support that. According to a global evidence review conducted by Daghagh Yazd et al. (2019), climate variability/drought emerges as one of the four factors most affecting farmers’ mental health.

High temperatures’ impact on mental health

High temperatures, e.g., during heat waves, are associated with mood and behavioural disorders including increases in aggressive behaviour and crime. Links between high temperatures and an increase in suicide risk were found, in particular for men, as well as the risk of mental health-related admissions and emergency department visits (Thompson et al., 2018).

A specific group vulnerable to the effects of extreme hot temperatures are people with pre-existing mental health condition (Palinkas et al., 2020: Page et al., 2012), for whom heat is associated with psychological distress, worsened mental health, and higher mortality (Charlson et al. 2021). The risk of dying for mental health patients during hot periods is increased by the interaction of heat with diuretics and psychotropic drugs (Page et al. 2012).

Distress from ongoing and anticipated climate and environmental change

The concerns associated with climate change can negatively affect mental well-being. This can take the form of ‘solastalgia’, i.e. the anguish induced by environmental changes affecting one’s beloved place; ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate anxiety’, i.e. the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future, and the future of the next generations; or ‘eco-paralysis’, defined as the feeling of not being able to take effective action to mitigate the effects of climate change (Albrecht et al., 2007; Albrecht, 2011; Clayton et al., 2017).

Children, youth, and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the distress and mental health problems related to environmental changes (Burke et al., 2018). Climate change emerges as one of the biggest causes of concern for children and young people (UNICEF and Eurochild, 2019). In a global survey, also including several European countries, the feelings about climate change negatively affect the daily life and functioning of nearly half of the children and young people, and 75% respondents judged their future as “frightening” (Marks et al., 2021; Hickman et al., 2021).

Impacts at the community level

How the mental health impacts on individuals translate into effects for the community is driven by many factors. They include the level of exposure of the given community to a given type of threat (the intensity, duration, recurrence, or persistence of the climate hazards). For example, cities exposed to high temperatures may become more violent (Cianconi et al., 2020). Studies highlight a correlation between temperature and crimes (Murataya and Gutiérrez, 2013), e.g., intimate partner violence (Sanz-Barbero et al., 2018). Another factor is the vulnerability of the community, i.e. the make-up of the population that may makes it prone to negative mental health outcomes. Vulnerable individuals - women, the elderly, children, people with previous psychiatric illnesses, and people with low income or poor social network, as well as indigenous and native communities - have an increased probability of developing psychopathologies (Cianconi et al., 2020).

At the community level, climate change can also place strain on communities due to shortage of resources, resulting in displacement, violence, and crime (Hayes and Poland, 2018). This can be particularly valid for indigenous and traditional communities, as well as in the regions where the environmental change progresses at fast rate (e.g., the Arctic or the Mediterranean basin).

Projected impacts of climate change on health

The frequency and intensity of extreme heatwaves is projected to keep increasing under all greenhouse gas emissions scenarios (IPCC, 2021). Moreover, the observed trend of warmer and drier conditions in Southern Europe will continue in the next decades leading to increase the severity and occurrence of forest fires, with a likely increased effect on mental health.

In the case of flooding, the severity of mental issues is proportional to the magnitude of flooding impact on one’s life - level of losses and damages, disruption to daily routines, etc (Fernandez et al. (2015). Thus, the projected increased frequency and magnitude of flooding is likely to result in greater impacts on mental health in the future. Projections estimate that coastal flooding alone could potentially cause five million additional cases of mild depression annually in the EU by the end of the 21st century under a high sea level rise scenario and in the absence of adaptation (Bosello et al., 2011).

In the Mediterranean region, the combination of growing populations and the impacts of climate change could create a shortage of crucial resources, jeopardizing water and food security, which could potentially endanger community cohesion and worsen mental health outcomes of individuals (MedECC, 2019). In the Northern countries, such as Finland, projected reduced snow and increased cloud cover could potentially cause further mental health challenges due to decreased brightness and increased prevalence of seasonal affective disorder (Burenby et al., 2021; Meriläinen et al., 2021).

Policy response

Even though political efforts to address mental health more generally exist in Europe, there is little policy targeting mental health impacts of climate change specifically. For example, the new ‘Healthier Together’ – EU Non-Communicable Diseases Initiative of the European Commission (2022-27) will help Member States reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases, with mental health as one of the five strands of work foreseen. The WHO Regional Office for Europe, in the recent European Framework for Action on Mental Health 2021-2025 (WHO/Europe, 2021) recognises the significance of mental health for achieving the sustainable development goals. However, climate change is not explicitly covered in those strategies.

Increasing number of European countries have general mental health strategies in place (OECD and EC, 2018). Yet, according to the EEA analysis of national adaptation and health policies, the impacts of climate change on mental health are recognised only in a minority of the, and even fewer of these policy documents include concrete measures.

Recommendations for policy makers to reduce impacts of climate change on mental health by Lawrance et al. (2021) include prioritisation of climate adaptation policies that have co-benefits for mental health and reduce social inequalities (e.g. improved access to nature); proactive adaptation interventions for the most vulnerable communities; allocation of funds to relevant research; and careful communication around the topic of climate change.

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