All that worrying about the effects of California’s apocalyptic drought, flooding from Hurricane Sandy, and whether, thanks to climate change, your house will one day be underwater is taking a toll on your mental health. That’s the finding of a new report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.
The authors of Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change found that the increasing frequency and severity of climate change–related natural disasters and differences in the environment and weather have a significant negative impact on our well-being. As the effects of climate change accelerate, we’re likely to see growing numbers of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and increased feelings of loss and helplessness.
"The striking thing is how these effects will permeate so many aspects of our daily lives," said Norman B. Anderson, the CEO of the American Psychological Association, in a statement. "The effects we are likely to see aren't just trauma from experiencing natural disasters. We can also expect increases in long-term stress and anxiety from the aftermath of disasters, as well as increases in violence and crime rates as a result of higher temperatures or competition for scarce resources."
The report says that women, children, and low-income communities where people lack education and the infrastructure is outdated are especially vulnerable. One need only recall the horrific scenes of people scrambling on rooftops and packed in the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to know what happens when underserved populations aren’t prepared for the weather equivalent of Armageddon. The effects of the loss of community are still being felt across the region, and earlier this year a Tulane researcher found stillbirths were 40 percent higher in areas that were in Katrina’s path. Post-disaster disorder on the part of the mother was cited as a prime cause of fetal death.
The report says that getting together a disaster kit and emergency plan can help people mentally prepare for what they’ll do in the event of a catastrophe. It also recommends that government and health officials step up their support of and collaboration with organizations that strengthen relationships and community ties. Nothing can really prepare a person for how it feels to see one's house washed away in a flood or burned to a crisp in a wildfire. No matter how tough a situation may be, strong emotional and social supports help people pick up the pieces after a disaster.
"There are a number of things communities can do to prepare for acute impacts of climate change—such as hurricanes and wildfires—as well as the slowly evolving changes like droughts that permanently and profoundly affect communities," said Bob Perkowitz, president of ecoAmerica. "Virtually everything a community does to prepare for or help prevent climate change has co-benefits, like increased community cohesion, increased health and well-being, and risk reduction."