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Climate justice requires mental health action

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NOVEMBER 03, 2022

Content warning: mentions of suicide

As UC Berkeley students, we are often faced with many stressors and obstacles that we have to deal with on an everyday basis. Arguably the most prominent threat to this planet today is climate change, defined as temperature and weather fluctuations that occur over time. Particularly, climate change effects may be exacerbated due to the burning of fossil fuels and increasing greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions in the atmosphere. Within the past four decades, the occurrence of extreme weather events, or EWE, have increased twofold around the world. 

Specifically, global warming and EWEs can pose great harm to survivors’ mental health and lead to mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Stemming from EWEs, physical environments may become uninhabitable, and deficient thermoregulation may contribute to heat-related cognitive impairment and psychosocial stress. 

The losses and trauma that one can experience post-disaster, such as displacement from homes or unemployment, can contribute to detrimental mental health outcomes. At the time of this writing, Floridians are recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Venezuelans are processing the dozens of deaths that resulted from a rain-fueled landslide that struck Las Tejerías in October. 

Evidently, the loss of homes, life and jobs can irrevocably result in declines in mental well-being and this symptom burden can gradually increase over time. Even if an individual hasn’t been personally affected by a climate-related disaster, many accumulate eco-anxiety, which is anxiety resulting from worry about how climate change might impact their futures. 

The most vulnerable populations are underprivileged minority groups, such as low-income people of color and people experiencing homelessness. Moreover, refugees and immigrants who have resettled in new places where EWEs have occurred can be retraumatized from being displaced from their homes again. 

Climate change “hotspots” are places where there are a lot of ecological and physical climate change effects. Those who reside in or near these hotspots are thus at a greater risk of experiencing climate-related disasters. This poses a great threat to mental health because underserved communities in these hotspots may not have the resources to adapt to such adverse environments and may experience secondary displacement. 

In addition to the fact that climate disasters can harm human health and lead to unfortunate fatalities, climate change can have detrimental, long-term effects on one’s mental health. These mental health issues can be a result of food insecurity, death of loved ones, population migration and financial instability from unemployment. Especially stemming from global warming and a rise in GHG concentrations, this accumulated heat can subdue thyroid hormones and lead to a lower mood, more aggressive behavior and higher rates of suicidal ideation. 

Therefore, it is imperative that the severe impacts of the climate crisis be addressed. There is an undeniable impact that the climate crisis has on everyone, especially marginalized communities in “hotspots” and young individuals, such as college students, who will live on the planet that we plan to preserve today.

When we want to achieve climate justice, we must also remember this climate crisis is a mental health crisis that requires further action at the local, state and federal level. Although there isn’t an extensive amount of research on climate change and mental health, a number of current studies emphasize what we can do as individuals and what psychiatry and healthcare systems can achieve. 

On the individual level, communities, especially hotspots, must be educated on emergency disaster preparedness, climate change and the resources that can be used before, during and after EWEs. Moreover, we should actively strive to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible and support sustainability initiatives that combat climate change. 

Within academic psychiatry departments, lecturers should be mandated to discuss the relationship between mental health and climate change to spread awareness that these unlikely issues are potentially linked. Scientific studies should be supported to further advance research on mental wellbeing and climate change impacts so we can begin to learn more about what the connections between mental health and climate change are.

Furthermore, within healthcare systems, policies should be instituted to minimize carbon footprint. This can be in the form of decreasing fossil fuel consumption, straying away from fast fashion and excessive food waste or incentivizing the usage of more public transportation or electric vehicles. 

As UC Berkeley students, there is much that can be done to take action to combat the effects of climate change on mental health. For instance, through the Student Environmental Resource Center, we can take sustainability courses to better educate ourselves or join environmental organizations, such as the Students of Color Environmental Collective, to organize around climate justice initiatives. Moreover, when faced with eco-anxiety, we can use campus mental health resources, such as Berkeley Student-to-Student Peer Counseling, to preserve and protect our well-being. 

Nonetheless, there is still much to be done to improve the effects of climate change and mental health. Simply put, this is a pressing matter that needs to be taken into account now. As they say “there is no Planet B,” so we must stop being bystanders and instead act now. We must make our future one that is environmentally sustainable to live in and one with less eco-anxiety for those most disproportionately affected. 

Christina Nguyen is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter

NOVEMBER 03, 2022