Global Climate Change Will Increase Anxiety, Fear and Depression

New Study Details Psychological Impacts of Climate Change

03-22-2012 // Tony Iallonardo

The impact of global climate change on Americans’ mental health has been largely ignored, even though the incidence of mental and social disorders will rise steeply if climate change is not curtailed, adding significant costs to the already $317 billion in annual mental health care expenditures and lost productivity in the U.S., concludes a major new study. “The greatest public costs could come from ignoring the effects,” the report concludes.

Because extreme weather events and disasters will be more severe and more frequent, the U. S. will see a rise in illnesses like depressive and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, suicide and violence.

The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States and Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System Is Not Adequately Prepared, authored by Kevin J. Coyle, JD, and Lise Van Susteren, MD, is the report of a March 2009 forum of health, and science and academic leaders from around the country.

A majority of Americans, around 220 million, are likely to experience direct adverse effects, including psychological distress from climate-related events, especially vulnerable people like children and the elderly and the 60 million or one in four with pre-existing mental health conditions.

“The consequences of failing to address climate change are quite serious for our economy, for our natural resources and for our psychological well-being. This ground-breaking study fills in a significant gap and highlights how failing to address climate change will bring more mental distress and disorders,” said Dr. Lise Van Susteren, MD, forensic psychiatrist and National Wildlife Federation board member. 

Scientists increasingly link natural disasters and extreme weather events to a warming planet. With 50 percent of Americans living in coastal regions and 70 percent in cities prone to heat waves and major inland cities located along rivers that will swell, most Americans are vulnerable. Economic sectors like agriculture, forest products and tourism could be disrupted, stressing families. Climate change will destabilize more countries which could draw the U.S. military into more conflicts abroad and exact a heavier psychological toll on troops and their families.

The nation’s mental health system is not prepared, the study asserts. It recommends, among other steps:

  • strengthening training of emergency managers and disaster responders on the psychological reactions to disasters;
  • producing a rigorous estimate of the cost of addressing psychological effects of climate change versus the cost of ignoring them;
  • developing a new discipline of study and practice;
  • forming mental health incident response teams.

The authors challenge mental health professionals to teach the public about climate change’s effects.

“The toll of climate change on our natural resources is well documented. This authoritative study sheds light on how climate change will affect the national psyche and calls on governments at every level to respond,” said Kevin Coyle, NWF Vice President for Education and Training.

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