Climate change threatens mental health too, study says

August 30, 2011

Flooding, droughts and major storms boosted by climate change are not only poised to ravage human habitats but mental health as well, according to Australian researchers.

“The damage caused by a changing climate is not just physical,” they said in a report released this week by the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Sydney.

“Recent experience shows extreme weather events also pose a serious risk to public health, including mental health and wellbeing, with serious flow-on consequences for the economy and wider society.”

Scientists still lack the tools to directly link a given weather episode to long-term climate patterns, but mounting temperatures and increasingly frequent disasters worldwide suggest that global warming has already begun to exert a magnifying impact.

The overall pace of measurable changes has in many cases tracked or exceeded worst-case scenarios laid out in 2007 by experts in the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new 30-page study focuses on Australia, hit in recent years by a devastating drought – known as “The Big Dry” – along with severe fires and floods.

Together, these events claimed many lives and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Up to now, however, few efforts have been made to assess the psychological impact of climate change-enhanced weather events, which in Australia have destroyed communities, farms and businesses.

In poorer countries with less capacity to absorb such shocks, the consequences on mental health are likely to be even greater, the report warned.

“The emerging burden of climate-related impacts on community morale and mental health – bereavement, depression, post-event stress disorders, and the tragedy of self-harm – is large,” noted Tony McMichael, a professor at Australian National University, in introducing the study.

Statistics from Australia show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, family breakups and suicide after extreme weather events, with impacts more pronounced in rural and semi-rural areas according to the report.

“Evidence is emerging that drought and heat waves lead to rates of self-harm and suicide as much as eight percent higher” when annual rainfall is at least 300 millimetres below average, it said.

Children in particular are vulnerable to pre-disaster anxiety and post-trauma illness, the researchers noted.

This is due not only to direct exposure of life-threatening situations and dislocation from family and community supports, but also to “the reality of living with long term threat,” noted Ian Hickie, director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Climate change will also render already stressful conflicts over resource use, especially for water, even more volatile, he added.

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