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Five ways climate change can affect your mental health

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Expert Dr. Sarah Levitt discusses climate-related distress

Five ways climate change can affect your mental health

If you feel like you’ve got a case of climate change worries, you’re not alone. Extreme weather events, forest fires, floods and the general sense of angst spurred by concerning headlines and personal experience of a changing environment can genuinely affect your mental well-being.

Climate change-related psychological issues is just one of the ways climate change is affecting human health. Dr. Sarah Levitt, a leader in this field and a psychiatrist at University Health Network (UHN), says that we are increasingly recognizing that the environment around us plays a huge role in our mental well-being.

“Reflecting on one’s inner mental and physical states can help identify if we are experiencing climate-related distress,” Dr. Levitt says. “Personally speaking, I find it helpful to name that I am experiencing eco-anxiety and also to normalize—and not pathologize — that I would feel distress at hearing about our planet’s, and other fellow humans’ suffering.”

Understanding climate-related mental health challenges can go a long way in helping to mitigate them. Here are five ways to be aware of how climate change can affect your mental well-being:

Anxiety from immediate climate events

With uncomfortably hot summers, forest fires and droughts destroying crops, and floods wiping out entire neighbourhoods, it’s natural that most people would feel alarmed and palpable anxiety around extreme weather events. Dr. Levitt cautions that anxiety caused by these phenomena shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a “pathology,” but as a rational reaction to a terrible situation. Still, it’s important to seek support if individuals start to experience changes in what they can do in their daily lives related to their level of distress.

“We know that climate-related extreme weather events can precipitate mental disorders like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “Researchers have also learned that these extreme weather events can increase substance use and suicidal ideation.”

Bigger picture distress

The existential dread that comes from the notion that the world is changing in irreversible ways can take a toll. Dr. Levitt points to “solastalgia” (or, missing a place that once was) and “ecological grief” as two emerging descriptions for the kinds of distress that individuals are experiencing related to climate change. This distress can be particularly acute in communities with a profound connection to the environment.

“Changes in the environment are quite evident in the Arctic, home to Inuit communities,” she says. “Decreased access to culturally important animals and lack of access to ice roads that leave communities isolated are just two of the ways that climate change interferes with land-based practices that are important to the mental wellbeing of these communities.”

Five ways climate change can affect your mental health
Dr. Sarah Levitt
Existing mental health conditions may be exacerbated

If you’re already on medication or in therapy for an existing mental health condition, climate change may contribute to worsening symptoms. “Extreme heat, in particular, can interfere with medications and underlying health conditions, placing people at risk for an exacerbation of their pre-existing symptoms,” says Dr. Levitt. An increase in anxiety from climate-related circumstances can also compound existing mental health issues.

Stress from indirect results of climate change

Since climate change is so intertwined with our social, political and economic systems, it can affect us even when our stress seems to stem from another cause. “Climate change is causing disruption in our economic and social systems,” Dr. Levitt says, pointing to issues like food insecurity as an indirect result of climate change that can throw people into a state of anxiety or depression. “Economic and social disruption has downstream effects on a population’s mental health.”

Healthy environments make for healthier minds

The good news is that while toxic environments can cause significant mental stress, Dr. Levitt says that access to fresh air, clean water and time spent in quiet green spaces can improve your state of mind. Where possible, engaging in advocacy work to help preserve our environment can also mitigate climate-related distress through empowering individuals and helping them find solace in community.

Take a healthy mental break and hear more from Dr. Levitt during lunch powered by UHN Foundation’s Serving Knowledge Supper Club at Chatelaine’s full-day wellness retreat on September 30 at the Vetta Spa in Oro-Medonte, Ontario. The exclusive event will feature sessions on this and other wellness topics as well as spa treatments and relaxing downtime and a delicious harvest dinner. Click here to register for the retreat.

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