Climate change: its impacts on mental health

Our resident mental health expert, Sanae Okamoto, was recently interviewed by the UN Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) in Brussels about her research – below follows an except of the Q&A that was published on the UNRIC website on 5 December 2023.

Can you elaborate on some specific examples of the impact of climate change on mental health?

New terms have emerged to describe climate change impacts on mental health. Climate change anxiety is associated with the symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder and is experienced by people, often young, overwhelmed with anxiety and the feeling that they have no control over the planet’s future. Eco-grief is triggered by witnessing environmental degradation, viewing media depictions or indirectly experiencing the climate crisis. ‘Solastalgia’ is used to describe feelings of people whose native lands or familiar environments are changing quickly and who have experienced a loss of sense of place.

Research shows that these mental health conditions could occur through acute events such as storms, floods, and wildfires; through long-term changes such as droughts and heat stress as well as related food and water insecurities; and through long-lasting changes to landscapes and physical environments caused by altered ecosystems and landscapes.

How do you see the lack of progress in global climate action contributing to distress, especially among young people and children?

As climate change-induced risks and events have been in news headlines almost daily, many young people and children learn about governments’ inertia on global climate action.

recent landmark study conducted in 10 different countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) with 10,000 young people (16-25) revealed that nearly 60% of them expressed that they feel ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’. Many also associated negative emotions – feeling sad, afraid, anxious, angry, and powerless – with climate change. The study shows large numbers of young people globally regard governments as failing to address or act on the climate crisis in a coherent, urgent way, expressing that they feel betrayal and abandonment both individually and on behalf of future generations.

Another study reported that young people are factoring climate-anxiety into their decisions on whether to have children, with 97% saying they were concerned about the well-being of children in the future.

Although climate change is now recognised as a catastrophic harm to children’s health, with more than 88% of the current burden of disease attributable to climate change occurring in children, very little attention has been given to the mental health consequences of climate risks for children. Around 85%, or 2.2 billion of the world’s children, live in low- and middle-income countries that are also the most vulnerable to climate risks.

Read the full interview here.