Mala Rao is Professor and Senior Clinical Fellow, Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, and Medical Adviser, NHS England Workforce Race Equality Strategy and Implementation Team.
How can climate change have an impact on mental health?
Mala Rao: There are several direct and indirect pathways by which the climate crisis impacts mental health. Extreme weather events, such as wildfires, floods, droughts, and heatwaves may directly result in new cases or increased symptoms of mental illness, increased deaths by suicide and increased susceptibility to physical illness in those with pre-existing mental illness. More gradual changes, such as rising temperatures and sea levels, may lead to crop failures, food insecurity and loss of livelihoods. This may result in forced migration, conflict, loss of community identity and disruptions to emotional bonds to places and ancestral heritage, which can all have profound effects on the mental health and well-being of the affected communities. Indirect experiences of climate impacts – for example, reading about climate disasters in the media and hearing about insufficient climate action from leaders – may also result in emotional distress and lower levels of well-being across the population.
Is the situation different across continents?
Mala Rao: The ‘largest and most international’ survey of climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 to date was published last year. It showed that climate change is having profound effects on the emotional well-being of young people around the world. However, it also highlighted that young people from countries in the ‘Global South’, who may have experienced or observed climate change, were more severely impacted. It is likely that there are similar differences between adult populations in countries that are more or less vulnerable to climate disasters.
Can you paint a picture of how climate change in Europe is affecting children and teenagers’ mental health?
Mala Rao: The evidence across Europe is scant. However, a 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showed that more than half (57 %) are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment. This scenario is likely to be similar across Europe, as children and young people everywhere are more aware of the climate crisis and are beginning to experience extreme weather events, even in Europe. The 2021 study on climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 included the UK, France, Finland and Portugal among the surveyed countries. It revealed that the psychological burdens of climate change are profoundly affecting large numbers of young people in these countries, as well as in the rest of the world: 59 % were very or extremely worried, 75 % felt that the future was frightening and 45 % reported that their feelings about climate change had affected their daily lives.
Are there differences between eco-anxiety or mental health issues caused by climate change and those caused by a variety of other reasons?
Mala Rao: Eco-anxiety is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as ‘the chronic fear of environmental doom’. The cause of eco-anxiety is clear, and so it is different when compared with mental health issues caused by other reasons.
Is the treatment different when mental health issues are related to climate change?
Mala Rao: The treatment of any mental health issue will depend on the cause, the diagnosis and the severity. Eco-anxiety is not yet recognised as a diagnosable condition. The recommended interventions include ensuring that the eco-anxious have access to information on how to contribute to climate action, including connecting with and having the support of like-minded individuals, contributing to greener choices, participating in nature-based activities and spending time in nature. There is growing research evidence that nature restoration is an effective therapeutic option in children and adolescents’ mental healthcare. Nature restoration may be offered more routinely in the future as the impact on emotional well-being of access to the natural environment becomes better recognised.
Are health professionals prepared to support people, namely children and teenagers, facing mental health challenges related to climate change?
Mala Rao: As eco-anxiety is not yet even recognised as a diagnosable condition and the scale of the problem is escalating rapidly, the challenge for mental health professionals is considerable. However, they are beginning to recognise the crucial role they have in supporting young people who are experiencing eco-anxiety to address their problem and build their emotional resilience. There is nevertheless a significant gap between the need for and the availability of professional support.