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A Storm on the Horizon: Dealing with the Mental Health Consequences of Climate Change

It had been just a week since we talked, and Jennifer Uherek had scheduled two more flood-affected families for counseling.

 A Houston-based trauma specialist, Uherek says that as severe weather has become more common in her community, so have these visits. Yet, she estimates that those who seek treatment are a small minority of the people who have developed trauma symptoms in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.

“When you lose your house, your livelihood,” Uherek told me over the phone, “you’re not thinking about the psychological impacts, you’ve got bigger things to deal with.”

The mental health impact of more severe storms is not the first thing that comes to mind in discussions of global warming. However, as climate change makes weather more volatile, bigger storms will become increasingly common. In the past 40 years, the frequency of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes has roughly doubled, and “hundred-year storms” are now predicted to land every couple decades. Any destructive storm can be emotionally devastating, but when these experiences become repetitive, the toll is even greater.

Many survivors of storms suffer symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the mental health condition associated with soldiers returning from combat. If left untreated, PTSD can cause severe fear, anxiety and other emotional and physical symptoms, which can place strain on relationships and disrupt a person’s daily life.

As the nation experiences the first waves of climate change, communities are scrambling to address the rising mental health toll. In the Houston area, discussions have taken place within the mental health community as to how to quickly administer group therapy. Government agencies also provide training resources to help local responders identity trauma symptoms. But with their sights trained on the opioid epidemic and other pressing mental health needs, their capacity to adequately address the growing issue of post-disaster trauma needs is stretched. 

And this situation isn’t isolated to our coasts. Jurisdictions around the world have had to expend precious resources fighting this new manifestation of climate change. In Australia, the government of New South Wales approved a plan to send “farm-gate” counselors to rural farmers who have been affected by drought. In part, this drought has been caused by changing rainfall patterns. In Maharashtra, India, the issue is even more pronounced, with the government offering aid packages to relieve an epidemic of farmer-suicides that has been linked with the rise of crop-damaging temperatures.

Mental health crises are only the latest symptoms of our climate’s sickness. As the full scope of climate change begins to reveal itself, there will be even more issues that demand our attention and resources. While treating these effects has become a necessary cost of our dependence on fossil fuels, we should not let it steal our attention from the underlying disease. If we fail to act soon, the diagnosis will only get worse.

The good news is that while this crisis is our current reality, it need not be our future one. Pain is a way our bodies tell us that we need to stop doing something. In a similar way, these physical and mental symptoms are warning signs that we need to change course. In the long run, the best way to treat the mental health consequences of climate change is to treat the cause. Policies that promote renewable energy, build clean transportation systems, and limit our emissions are the best ways to contain the mental damage of climate change.

By lessening our strain on the earth, we will also lessen the strain on our minds.