Climate change not only affects the environment, but may also adversely impact mental health, according to a collaborative report by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health and ecoAmerica. According to researchers, natural disasters may spur trauma and shock in individuals due to loss of property, livelihood, or relatives. In turn, traumatic experiences may give rise to anger, terror and other negative emotions. These emotions may eventually worsen into post-traumatic stress disorder, the researchers said.
The report cited the effects of both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy to provide an insight on the effects of climate change-related disasters on the mental well-being of affected individuals. According to the report, the rates of suicide and suicide intent among Louisiana residents more than doubled following the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The research team noted one in six affected residents met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, nearly half of the residents developed anxiety or mood disorder.
The report also found an increase in mental health events following the wake of Hurricane Sandy. According to the report, nearly 15 percent of affected individuals exhibited symptoms of PTSD. On the other hand, extreme bush fires were associated with the onset of PSTD symptoms in more than 15 percent of affected individuals across the country. The researchers cautioned that PTSD symptoms may trigger behavioral issues such as suicide, substance abuse, and depression as well as anxiety, violence, and aggression. PTSD may also cause interpersonal difficulties and job-related difficulties in affected individuals, the researchers added.
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“Changes in climate affect agriculture, infrastructure and livability, which in turn affect occupations and quality of life and can force people to migrate. These effects may lead to loss of personal and professional identity, loss of social support structures, loss of a sense of control and autonomy and other mental health impacts such as feelings of helplessness, fear and fatalism,” the researchers quoted in PsychologyToday.com.
More experts warn of behavioral issues tied to climate change
The Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S. also expressed concerns over the negative effects of climate change and related natural disasters on the mental health of the general public. According to an expert, weather-related catastrophes are particularly traumatic. The expert also noted that closer proximity to the center of the tragedy could spur greater impact on mental health. About 25 to 50 percent of all people exposed to an extreme weather disaster were likely develop some adverse mental health effects, the expert said. The degree of these negative effects depend on a number of factors such as age, coping ability, and proximity to the affected area.
“An intensely traumatic event will have a substantial effect on the mental health of many survivors. The more severe and intense your exposure to traumatic experiences during a disaster, the more likely that you will have severe mental health symptoms. If you watch someone die or your house floods, you tend to have more intense effects. When you have one of these massive disasters, the effects are long-range. Even now we have seen a relatively small drop-off in symptoms. This suggests that we will have to respond to future disasters in new ways, that different kinds of interventions are needed three and four years down the road,” said psychologist and researcher Carl F. Weems. The researcher currently serves as an Associate Professor at the University of New Orleans. Weems suggested evacuating farther from the center of calamity to reduce the risk of developing mental health issues.