Climate Change Is Harming Physical and Mental Health

Dec. 16, 2022 — Laken Brooks, a 27-year-old PhD student at the University of Florida, has dealt with the skin condition psoriasis since she was a preteen. It’s always been a painful and difficult condition to manage, but over the past several years, Brooks has struggled even more. She suspects her psoriasis is worse thanks to climate change.

 “Each year, the summer seems to last a bit longer,” Brooks says. “When I first moved to Florida (5 years ago), I noticed that sunburn and sweat made my skin feel even itchier than normal. I tried to alleviate some of the symptoms by wearing hats and head scarves, and I expected that I would acclimate to the new climate. But it’s difficult to acclimate when each year, the temperatures continue going up and my skin can never really get accustomed to the Florida climate.”

Brooks is onto something — climate change is having increasingly bigger impacts on health. The seventh annual The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, released this fall, confirms that. The report, authored by nearly 100 experts from over 50 academic institutions and agencies, tracks the impact of climate change on global health. The 2022 version revealed that every year, in every region of the globe, climate change is undermining health. 

The Lancet report this year identified four major harms from climate change: air quality, heat-related illness, infectious disease, and mental health.

Renee Salas, MD, of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is one of the report’s authors. She’s regularly sees how climate change is harming her patients’ health — especially those who cannot afford to mitigate its impacts. 

“We had a patient present to the emergency room last summer with a core temperature of 106,” she explains. “He met the criteria for heat stroke. He and his wife lived in an upper story apartment with no access to A/C.”

Salas sees it as part of her responsibility to her patients to make the connections between climate change and health effects. Heat, in particular, is a palpable way for people to understand that connection, she says. 

The impacts go beyond heat, however. “I have concerns about all of them,” says Salas. “And how climate change impacts a person will be impacted by how they live and the resources they have.” 

Climate’s Impact on Mental Health 

While heat might be the most obvious of harms people recognize from climate change, the mental health piece of the equation is likely the least. Susan Clayton, PhD, is a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. She’s been studying the link between the two for several years and has written three papers on the subject, the first in 2014. 

“We’re reaching a point where people express that they’re anxious about climate change, but they don’t recognize that as a mental health threat,” she says. 

In her work on the subject, Clayton has identified four categories where climate change impacts mental health: 

  • Increasingly severe weather events: As more people experience devastating weather events, more people are also experiencing PTSD, clinical anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
  • Slower changes: It doesn’t take a category 5 hurricane to dole out mental health harm. As temperatures rise higher than normal for longer periods of time, so too do the rates of suicide and psychiatric hospitalizations.
  • Involuntary displacement: Many people love and are rooted to where they live. As coastal flooding, wildfires, and other weather events displace them, they suffer deteriorating mental health. 
  • Awareness of climate change: As everyone bears witness to climate change and become increasingly aware of its impacts, collective anxiety levels rise. For most people this is manageable, but it’s still harmful.

While talking about climate change and how it harms mental health can sometimes increase feelings of anxiety and other conditions, it’s an essential conversation to have, says Clayton. “When you’re overwhelmed and disempowered, it can be too much to cope with,” she explains. “But it can also encourage you to attend to the issue.” 

Mitigation in the Meantime 

As the data continues to pour out and demonstrate the link between climate change and health, it remains difficult for people to understand. For Salas, this can often be frustrating. 

“I often have to walk upstream to understand what’s causing patients’ issues in the first place,” she says. “That’s why I do the work I do — I cannot just treat patients in the ER and call it good. That’s like putting a band aid on a bullet wound.” 

Recognizing and pointing out that those in the line of fire are often those with fewer resources to change how climate is impacting their health is a starting point. 

“We recognize that policy and higher-level decisions have drive these situations,” Salas says. “So I try to find the risks, educate patients, and then give them recommendations to protect themselves.”

This might look like suggesting a patient add an air filtration system in their home, or ensuring they have a back-up plan for using a nebulizer if the electricity is knocked out. The biggest message to get across, says Salas, is that health is harmed by what is happening “upstream.” “We need political and social will to change,” she says. “We’re beginning to see this — the health community is rising up and recognizing it as fundamental to the mission of medicine.” 

For people like Brooks, who are not able to relocate now, the temporary fix is trying to minimize how climate change exacerbates existing conditions. “I have been able to mitigate some flare-ups by taking cool showers,” she says. “I don’t plan to live in Florida forever, but right now I don’t have the resources to transplant my life and move somewhere else.”