The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently declared climate change a health emergency, reflecting similar positions taken by a growing list of peak medical bodies around the world.
The AMA’s statement highlights the significant impacts climate change is having on physical health, including an increase in climate-related deaths. The World Health Organisation regards climate change as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century”.
Climate change can affect people’s mental health in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly.
We know experiencing extreme weather events is a risk factor for mental illness. And many thousands of people around the world are displaced from their homes as a result of climate events, putting them at perhaps even higher risk of mental illness.
More generally, people feeling distressed about the state of the planet may find themselves in a spiral of what’s been termed “eco-anxiety”.
Long-term environmental changes, including once fertile land turning to desert, erosion of soil and coastlines, and sea level rise, are predicted to result in large-scale displacement, a major risk factor for mental illness.
Global statistics already estimate that in 2017 the majority of people forced from their homes around the world were displaced as a result of climatic related disasters.
For many Australians, the dread of what the future holds in the face of unmitigated climatic change is having documented impacts on their mental health. Australia’s youth have been exemplary at voicing their despair and “eco-anxiety” around the foreseeable deterioration of our planet.
So, what can be done?
Doing everything we can to reduce the progression of climate change is one clear way to address this issue.
But with the knowledge the climate crisis is only escalating, some practical responses will focus on preparing the health system for this change. This should include increasing awareness of the mental health effects of climateic change across the community, private, and government sectors.