Climate change harms physical and mental health

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December 16, 2022 — Laken Brooks, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Florida, has dealt with the skin condition psoriasis since she was a teenager. It’s always been a painful and difficult condition to treat, but in recent years Brooks has struggled even more. She suspects that climate change has made her psoriasis worse.

“Every year summer seems to last a little bit longer,” says Brooks. “When I first moved to Florida (5 years ago) I noticed my skin was itchy even more than normal from sunburn and sweat. I tried to alleviate some of the symptoms by wearing hats and headscarves, expecting to adjust to the new climate. But it’s difficult to acclimatize when the temperatures keep rising every year and my skin never really gets used to the Florida climate.”

Brooks is on to something – climate change is having an increasing impact on health. The seventh annual The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, published 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 climate change is eroding health in every region of the world every year.

The lancet This year’s report identified four main harms from climate change: air quality, heat-related illnesses, infectious diseases and mental health.

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

“Last summer we had a patient in the ER with a core temperature of 106,” she explains. “He met criteria for heat stroke. He and his wife lived in an upstairs apartment with no access to air conditioning.”

Salas sees it as part of her responsibility to her patients to make the connections between climate change and health impacts. Heat, in particular, is a tangible way for humans to understand this connection, she says.

However, the effects go beyond heat. “I worry about them all,” says Salas. “And how climate change affects a person depends on how they live and what resources they have.”

Effects of climate on mental health

While heat is the most obvious damage people see from climate change, the mental health part of the equation is probably the least. Susan Clayton, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. She has been studying the connection between the two for several years and has written three papers on the subject, the first in 2014.

“We’re getting to a point where people are expressing concern about climate change, but they don’t recognize it as a mental health threat,” she says.

In her work on this topic, Clayton has identified four categories in which climate change is affecting mental health:

  • Increasingly Severe Weather Events: As more people experience devastating weather events, more people also suffer from PTSD, clinical anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
  • Slower Changes: It doesn’t take a Category 5 hurricane to cause psychological damage. As temperatures rise higher than normal for longer periods, suicide rates and psychiatric hospitalizations also rise.
  • Involuntary displacement: Many people love and are rooted where they live. As coastal flooding, wildfires and other weather events drive them away, they suffer from deteriorating mental health.
  • Awareness of Climate Change: As everyone witnesses climate change and becomes increasingly aware of its impacts, collective fear rises. This is manageable for most people, but it is still harmful.

While talking about climate change and its impact on mental health can sometimes increase feelings of anxiety and other conditions, it’s an important conversation, says Clayton. “When you’re overwhelmed and disempowered, it can be too much to deal with,” she explains. “But it can also encourage you to look into the subject.”

mitigation in the meantime

As the data continues to pour out showing the link between climate change and health, it remains difficult for people to understand. This is often frustrating for Salas.

“I often have to go upstream to understand what’s causing the patients’ problems in the first place,” she says. “That’s why I do the work I do — I can’t just treat patients in the ER and call it good. It’s like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.”

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

“We are aware that political decisions and higher-level decisions drove these situations forward,” says Salas. “So I try to find the risks, educate patients, and then give them recommendations on how to protect themselves.”

This might seem like suggesting a patient add an air filtration system in their home, or making sure they have a backup plan for using a nebulizer if the power goes out. The most important message to get across, says Salas, is that health is being damaged by what’s happening “upstream.” “We need the political and social will to change,” she says. “We’re starting to see this — the health community is standing up and acknowledging it as fundamental to medicine’s mission.”

For people like Brooks, who can’t move now, the temporary solution is to minimize how climate change makes existing conditions worse. “I’ve been able to relieve some flare-ups by taking a cool shower,” 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.”


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Climate change harms physical and mental health
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