Climate and mental breakdown

Waves on the sea front at New Brighton in Merseyside as Storm Barra hit the UK and Ireland with disruptive winds, heavy rain and snow. 

'Climate disorder is a tangible and immediate threat. It’s time we recognise the material impacts of the ecological crisis on our minds.'

As maladaptive social and economic systems respond in this way to the crisis, the mental health implications of inequality will only be made more extreme.

Climate breakdown is contributing to climate disorder - that is, mental illness related to climate change. The previous articles in this series sketch an outline of this phenomenon.

But it’s one thing to note a correlation, however startling, and quite another to argue there are causal pathways. To make that argument convincingly, we need to look at what causes mental illness in the first place.

First, we need to do away with anachronistic notions of the root causes of mental illness. Most bizarrely, many have long linked mental illness to the supernatural.

Hurtful

As recently as 2012 one study in India found that two thirds of patients believed mental illness is caused by “sorcery, ghosts, evil spirit[s], spirit intrusion, divine wrath, planetary and astrological influences [or] bad deeds of the past”.

A similar study in Malaysia found that 53 percent of patients attributed their illness to supernatural causes. In the US in 2014 a study by Lifeway Research found that nearly half of Evangelical Christians thought one can “pray away” mental illness.

These kinds of beliefs, which appear to be very common across the world, make it difficult to link climate change and mental illness, let alone discuss it openly in the communities that hold these beliefs.

More conventionally, there’s still a widespread belief that mental illness is somehow the fault of the individual. This is perpetuated in popular culture, in TV, movies and books, through countless stories of personality driven risk-taking or substance use leading to insanity.

As maladaptive social and economic systems respond in this way to the crisis, the mental health implications of inequality will only be made more extreme.

In the same vein, the mentally ill are often portrayed as refusing to take medication or seek treatment, so that by pushing help away, they are choosing to be ill. While they can make for good drama, these portrayals are inaccurate, simplistic and hurtful to those suffering from these kinds of conditions.

Discrimination

Other commonly held views on the causes of mental illness rest on biological determinism. While there’s a definite link between genes and many mental illnesses, it needs to be understood that genes almost always play the role of ‘primers,’ a stacking of the deck that makes the onset of psychiatric illness more or less likely.

As conditions like depression and anxiety are becoming more widespread and more openly discussed, this misguided cause and effect model is thankfully beginning to dissolve. Mental illness is becoming less ‘othered’ as we come to understand its gradients, nuances and subtleties.

Nonetheless, sufferers are often still made to feel it’s their own fault that they’re ill. A total of 85 percent of depressed patients in one study, for instance, suffered from ‘self-blame’.

This self-flagellation also contributes to stigma. Nearly 90 percent of patients in the UK, a putatively progressive country when it comes to these issues, say their lives have been negatively affected by stereotypes and discrimination.

Claiming climate change could contribute to personal behaviour choices and genes leading to mental illness is obviously a little farfetched.

Biosphere

But modern conceptions of the causes of mental illness have gone far beyond these narrow understandings. Mental illness is much more social, relational and environmental than was once thought.

Life experiences, especially trauma, both physical and psychological, as well as our perceived social standing, stress, loss, conflict, poverty, beliefs about the future and more all contribute to the onset and severity of mental illness.

All these important factors are intimately linked to climate change, a systemic problem that threatens to destabilise our minds by destabilising the very foundations of what we need to be well.

As social beings embedded in webs of relationships with each other and our environment, it shouldn’t be a surprise that devastating our biosphere and everything else that entails, socially, economically, and politically, is causing mental illness. A few examples, laid out below, explain some of the pathways.

Chronic pain

Physical sensations can have considerable impacts on mental health. Chronic pain is perhaps the most extreme example.

In the US, for instance, it’s been found that those with fibromyalgia, a chronic disease affecting the spine and brain - a  strikingly gendered affliction, with 90 percent of the sufferers being female, are five times more likely to be seriously affected by anxiety disorders.

Multiple sclerosis is similar, with patients being twice as likely to suffer from major depression. Those who regularly experience neck and back pain, migraines and pain related to menstruation are also at higher risk of developing mental illness.

The fact that pain can drive mental illness shouldn’t be surprising, but there’s an extra step. Our environment can increase pain levels, which in turn puts us more at risk of psychiatric illness.

It’s well understood that natural disasters generate new cases of chronic pain, both in terms of entirely new cases from injury and pushing those already taking prescription pain medications into new realms of suffering; especially if their supply is cut off by climate events.

Further, however, a recent landmark study that included over 10,000 people found that the symptoms of those suffering from chronic pain were significantly greater when the weather was extreme, due to low pressure, high humidity, precipitation and strong winds.

Climate-related weather events will only accelerate this, and associated psychological struggles.

Violence and abuse

Trauma is a well-documented driver of mental illness. One study, in Norway, found that 91 percent of mental health patients had experienced trauma prior to hospitalisation, while 69 percent has been repeatedly exposed to trauma.

More specifically, violence and domestic abuse are key contributors to the development of mental illness, especially PTSD, anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders.

Such abuse is the leading cause of death for women of childbearing age, mainly due to “the mental health consequences.”

Childhood abuse is also a major psychiatric concern. Abused and neglected children are four times more likely to develop psychosis, schizoaffective disorder and bipolar.

The effects of climate change are already increasing rates of both intimate partner violence and child abuse.

A recent longitudinal time series study found a noticeable increase in violence against women following heatwaves, the most extreme of which was a 40 percent rise in the risk of intimate partner femicide following a heatwave in Madrid.

A systematic review from 2019 also found that children suffer terrifying levels of abuse following natural disasters, including physical violence against boys and sexual violence against girls.

Inequality

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their intricate and powerful book The Inner Level that it’s not just material affluence that matters but being relatively worse off that can lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

This happens largely because unequal societies are more likely to build identity and self-worth on status and an assessment of where we think we stand in relation to others.

One meta-analysis in Lancet Psychiatry found that despite high levels of GDP per capita, citizens of highly unequal countries like the US and UK seemed much worse off in terms of their mental health than more equal countries of similar economic standing, like Japan.

How our brains process the interplay between dominance and subservience, and the psychological, hormonal and emotional reactions are thought to be what’s driving the difference.

Climate breakdown has been clearly shown to increase global inequality. Already we’ve seen a massive 25 percent increase in between-country inequality and even organisations like the World Bank and WTO are warning that we’ll lose decades of developmental progress as a result of further warming.

Within-country inequality is also set to rise. A detailed UN paper outlines what the authors call a “vicious cycle” whereby those who are initially at a disadvantage suffer most from climate change, and are then plunged even further into destitution, meaning they are even more vulnerable to future events.

Climate breakdown will also lead to increases in conflict between social classes, an unsurprising outcome of the fact that the richest one percent emit more carbon globally than the bottom 50 percent.

As maladaptive social and economic systems respond in this way to the crisis, the mental health implications of inequality will only be made more extreme.

Guilt

One potentially surprising factor is guilt. Feelings of excessive guilt are often a symptom of mental health conditions, but they can also exacerbate and even lead to the onset of illness in the first place.

Given the levels of personal responsibility we’re made to feel about climate change, there’s significant cause for concern. Guilt can cause depressive symptoms and serious anxiety, as well as leading to higher levels of stress which can trigger substance use disorders and other problems.

In the biggest survey of young people and climate-related psychological distress to date, it was found that more than half of the 10,000 respondents felt guilty about climate change.

This can have material impacts on the mind. The first comprehensive study to investigate the link using MRI scans found unexpected physical evidence.

Researchers imaged the brains of over 300 children multiple times over 10 years and found that those who’d suffered from ‘pathological guilt’ at young ages ended up with ‘structural abnormalities’ in an area of the brain associated with anxiety and depression, leading to mood disorders in later life.

State of the world

The way we perceive the future also influences our state of mind. An international survey by YouGov a few years ago found that 71 percent thought the state of the world was declining, with only five percent on the other side of the fence.

For a species that relies heavily on narratives of progress and improvement, these results should be concerning. The fear, alarm and nihilism wrapped up in such projections is a psychological reality many have to live with every day.

We have few historical correlates for this. During the Cold War, as the US and USSR threatened the planet with nuclear Armageddon, fear and anxiety set in. In 1979, 71 percent of US children thought that a catastrophic attack was going to take place.

This unsurprisingly impacted their mental health. A well-worn but telling contemporary joke involved asking people: "what do you want to be if you grow up?"

This bleak worldview was compounded by an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, living under constant threat, but lacking the agency to do anything about it. Though qualitatively different, this sounds familiar.

Pandemic

Covid has presented us with a similar scenario. While the impacts of isolation and restrictions on social interaction have led to huge dips in self-reported wellbeing, so has the generalised fear instilled in the global populous around societal disintegration and disaster.

Research shows that since the start of the pandemic anxiety and depression have risen in the UK by almost 100 percent. In the US it’s an increase of nearly 300 percent.

One UK study even found that one in ten people have had suicidal thoughts due to the pandemic - and they were only asking about the previous two weeks.

The same research found definitive evidence that those lower on the economic ladder and otherwise vulnerable people were far more likely to suffer psychologically because of the pandemic.

Climate breakdown acts as a similarly threatening and potentially civilisation-ending beast which, while ultimately affecting everyone, will have unequally distributed effects – both physically and mentally.

Conclusion

The mental health consequences of climate breakdown might sound like secondary concerns, ones that are less important than the physical impacts of climate change: the starvation and death, conflict, forced migration and loss of house and home.

But mental illness is an urgent crisis in and of itself. Already mental illness accounts for 13 percent of the global disease burden and is projected to be the leading cause of death and disease worldwide by 2030.

A worrying 14.3 percent of deaths worldwide are attributed to mental health issues, and psychological conditions are responsible for 32.4 percent of all years lived with disability. Depression alone is now the second leading cause of disability worldwide.

People aren’t getting the support they need, either. In low- and middle-income countries especially, between 76 percent and 85 percent of sufferers receive no treatment for their condition whatsoever.

Climate breakdown is set to make this worse, both as a result of thinking about the crisis and the knock-on effects of frontline impacts.

Unfortunately, much like the gases that are leading to this unravelling catastrophe, these conditions are largely invisible. We can’t allow that to continue.

Climate disorder is a tangible and immediate threat. It’s time we recognise the material impacts of the ecological crisis on our minds. If we do, we’ll be one step closer to bringing the lived experience of mental illness into focus. Only then can we fight back.

This Author

Charlie Hertzog Young is a researcher and writer working on climate, progressive politics, and mental health. He tweets at @CHertzogYoung. Read part one in this series: Diagnosing climate disorder.

If you are experiencing mental health distress you can reach out to the Samaritans or find out more information from the charity Mind.

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