Experts Warns that Climate Change is a Major Mental Health Threat

Experts Warns that Climate Change is a Major Mental Health Threat – Climate change is a major threat to mental health, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), warns. The association has joined the growing ranks of physician groups that are sounding the alarm about the multifactorial effects that rising seas, temperature extremes, and changing environments are having on individuals’ physical and mental health.

In a new position statement, the APA focuses on the profound impact of climate change on mental health, which may include the development or exacerbation of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or substance abuse.

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“Those with mental health disorders are disproportionately impacted by the consequences of climate change. APA recognizes and commits to support and collaborate with patients, communities, and other healthcare organizations engaged in efforts to mitigate the adverse health and mental health effects of climate change,” the APA statement said.

Climate change and its weather-related consequences are occurring more frequently, becoming more destructive, are are occurring in places where they were not as common before, Joshua C. Morganstein, MD, the lead author of the position statement, told Medscape Medical News.

The APA began working on its climate change response in 2015. After review by various committees, the association’s assembly approved the statement in November 2016 and submitted it to the board, which gave its backing in March of this year.

The statement is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence on the damaging effects of climate change, said Dr Morganstein. “There’s a relatively robust body of literature about the adverse psychological and behavioral health effects of weather-related disasters,” he said.

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Dr Morganstein and coauthor Robert Ursano, MD, who are both members of the APA’s Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster Committee and are practicing psychiatrists in Bethesda, Maryland, also contributed to the chapter on mental health in a recent key federal report on climate change, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. The report was issued by the US Global Change Research Program in April 2016.

Among the report’s main findings for mental health:

  • Exposure to disasters results in mental health consequences, some chronic.
  • Children, the elderly, people with preexisting mental illness, the economically disadvantaged, and first responders are at higher risk for distress and other adverse mental health consequences from climate- or weather-related disasters. Communities that rely on the natural environment for sustenance and livelihood, as well as populations living in areas most susceptible to specific climate change events, are at increased risk for adverse mental health outcomes.
  • Just the threat of climate change can cause some people to experience adverse mental health outcomes, and media and popular representations of climate change can influence stress responses and mental well-being.
  • Extreme heat can put people with mental illness at higher risk for poor physical and mental health.

Dialing Down the Stress

The report helped solidify the idea that mental health is just as important as physical health, especially when it comes to weather-associated disasters caused by climate change, said Dr Morganstein. “For some disasters, the mental health effects can vastly exceed the economic costs or other health effects,” he said.

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Often, the mental impact of a natural disaster is lost in the shuffle, he said. Having an understanding of the potential short- and long-term fallout on mental well-being is key to preventing worse outcomes, said Dr Morganstein.

Individuals with existing anxiety or depression or PTSD could see a worsening of symptoms. Individuals may develop these disorders as a result of the stress of the event. Distress reactions may also occur in the form of risky behaviors, such as increased alcohol or drug use, he added.

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