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Anxiety, depression and PTSD all results of global warming

Julian Osley/Geograph
Dr. Lise Van Susteren said one of the best ways to combat the mental toll of climate change is to get involved and become an advocate for change.

Climate change can take a toll on mental health, but there are ways to alleviate such effects and promote real change, one expert argues on "Take Care" this week.

Dr. Lise Van Susteren is a general and forensic psychiatrist and co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. She also co-authored the report “The Psychological Effects of Climate Warming on the U.S.: Why the U.S. Mental Health System is Not Prepared” in 2011.

Van Susteren said the mental health effects of climate change are not often considered, but it is nevertheless important to understand the numerous ways poor mental health caused by climate change can be expressed.

“We are seeing people are already experiencing major depressive episodes, certainly anxiety disorders and adjustment disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder,” Van Susteren said. “We also find that, after extreme weather events, there’s an uptick in domestic violence, which includes child abuse.”

A lot of the mental anguish, Van Susteren said, comes from the community-oriented nature of our society today, making us sympathize with others’ suffering.

“We’re not potted plants. … When we see other people suffering, the ripple effects of vicarious experience of seeing others suffer weighs on us very heavily,” she said. “This cumulative toll of emotional suffering is something that has been neglected, and we now really need to focus on it.”

Those in lower socioeconomic status and those living in disaster-prone areas are most at risk of these detrimental effects, so Susteren said it is up to those who are better off to act.

“It really calls upon us who are thought-leaders and who have the means and who have a high-carbon lifestyle to realize that that is the greatest injustice of all, is to live a high-carbon lifestyle when we know how much others are suffering,” Van Susteren said.

One community that the report she worked on mentioned that may be particularly affected by climate-change-induced mental health issues is the U.S. military and their families, which is a group already plagued by special mental health considerations.

"That feeling of empowerment, when you run at a problem and you’re dedicated to making the changes that you can, is one of the healthiest ways to deal with any of the emotions that climate change prompts."

The national security issues are severe, Susteren said, with rising sea levels threatening overseas military bases. In addition, environmental disasters like droughts can cause conflicts in countries like Syria, where the U.S. military was sent to restore order.

At the time of her report, Susteren said the U.S. mental health system is not prepared for these increasing issues. But in the few years since then, Van Susteren said she has seen significant improvement.

Among the positive changes is the American Psychiatric Association’s statement declaring that climate change is caused by humans and will create enormous public health impacts, both to our physical well-being and our psychological well-being. In addition, programs and individuals in the mental health sector are advocating for ways to avoid problems in the future.

“We are now getting a growing number of people who recognize and are very involved in creating workshops and presentations to bring the really valuable, I think, communication skills that we have to the public officials and to the general public,” she said.

Preventing climate change and dealing with its consequences is predicted to be quite costly to begin with, and mental health care can be considerably expensive for many people. Van Susteren said due to discretionary-fund cuts and other factors, as the need for mental health care continues to increase, the availability of services will decline. But, she said, that will not last.

“That will be an interim period, and the hope is we will create systemic changes that make for a healthier world, a greener world, cleaner air and water so that we don’t have these problems and we can work upstream so that the broken pieces don’t land in our laps,” Van Susteren said.

Another area to tackle is climate grief, when people express a sense of sadness, anger, despair and/or panic thinking about the rapid changes climate change is having on our world. Van Susteren said the best way for mental health professionals to approach this issue is to validate those feels and steer the individual or groups toward being an agent of change.

“That feeling of empowerment, when you run at a problem and you’re dedicated to making the changes that you can, is one of the healthiest ways to deal with any of the emotions that climate change prompts,” she said.

The other side of that coin is those that see climate change as such a big, distant problem that is hard to comprehend and therefore easier to deny or delay dealing with. Mental health professionals can help with that roadblock, Van Susteren said, through indirect methods, like appealing to spiritual arguments of restoring Earth’s beauty.

“You don’t have to bring up climate,” she said. “You can make all sorts of very clever ways to reach people using their language.”

As for ways individuals can help themselves and others, Van Susteren said advocating for change in one’s personal, professional and political spheres can go a long way.

“Make sure that you work for people who are going to work hard to change the atmosphere on climate and work towards a resolution of our problems,” she said. “Get involved, and of those kinds of things, the comradery of being with like-minded people and personal action in these three spheres, will really help restore some of your equanimity.”