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How Extreme Weather Events Affect Mental Health

Climate change and related disasters cause anxiety-related responses as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders.2 Flooding and prolonged droughts have been associated with elevated levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.3 The trauma and losses from a disaster, such as losing a home or job and being disconnected from neighborhood and community, can contribute to depression and anxiety.

Extreme weather events have also been associated with increases in aggressive behavior and domestic violence.3 Exposure to extreme heat may lead to increased use of alcohol to cope with stress, increases in hospital and emergency room admissions for people with mental health or psychiatric conditions, and an increase in suicide.

The need for mental health services increases in the aftermath of a climate-related disaster. At the same time, there is often a disruption in services or a decrease in the availability or accessibility of services.

Who Is Affected by Climate Change

Some people are more vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change, including children, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with cognitive or mobility impairments, pregnant and postpartum women, and people with mental illness. People of lower socioeconomic status, migrants, refugees and the homeless may also be more vulnerable.

People with mental health conditions are more likely to be affected by extreme weather events for several reasons. Psychiatric medications can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate heat and their awareness that their body temperature is rising, which is associated with injury and death.1 ;People living with mental illness are also more likely to live in poverty or to have co-occurring substance use disorders, which make it harder for them to cope or adapt to changes. In addition, those with severe mental illness are more likely to be dependent upon service, infrastructure, and medication supply chains that are often disrupted after disasters.

Children are more impacted by disasters than adults and are more likely to have continued trauma-related symptoms after a disaster.2 Disruptions in routine, separation from caregivers as a result of evacuations or displacement, and parental stress after a disaster all contribute to children’s distress. Children are often very resilient and reactions to disasters may resolve over time, but they should be monitored for long-term effects of chronic stress related to extreme weather events.

First responders, emergency workers and others involved with responding to extreme weather-related disasters are at increased risk for mental health consequences both in the short and long term.3 These individuals may be both a responder and victim, required to provide care for the public while managing the adverse impacts of a disaster for their own family. Responders and emergency workers are often exposed to injury or death in the line of work, which can increase negative impacts.

Longer-Term and Interconnected Effects

Many potential long-term impacts of climate change, such as population migration, food scarcity, loss of employment and loss of social support, have consequences for mental health.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, population migration linked to climate change is already happening. Each year since 2008, an average of more than 20 million people are forced to move because of weather-related events, such as floods, storms, wildfires or extreme temperature. Many others are leaving their homes because of slower moving events, such as droughts or coastal erosion.

Mental health can also be affected by other impacts of climate change, including food scarcity or food quality issues, potential increases in diseases transmitted by insects (such as Lyme disease and malaria) and air pollution.3

Resources

Physician review:

Joshua C. Morganstein, M.D.

November 2019

References

  1. APA Resource Document: Mental Health and Climate Change, 2017.
  2. Lancet Commission on Health and Climate. Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health. The Lancet. Published online June 2015.
  3. U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2016. The impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.
  4. Clayton, S. et al. 2017. Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.
  5. American Psychiatric Association, APA Public Opinion Poll – Annual Meeting 2019.

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