Why you should care
Because it’s one thing to lose cities and lakes to a warming planet, and something else entirely to lose your mind to it.
It’s long been argued that climate change will see our cities flooded, our forests reduced to ash and our weather turn increasingly violent and unpredictable.
But research has found that the downside of living in a hotter, less-climate-stable world may not be limited only to buildings, trees and weather: A recently released report suggests climate change may actually affect what’s going on inside our own heads.
Combining data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and daily weather reports, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego, sampled responses from nearly 2 million Americans between 2002 and 2012 to see whether climate change-related weather events influenced people’s mental well-being. The answer was yes. As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather, the associated disasters and social disruption are likely to increase mental health difficulties, according to their findings published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal. But as with many of the adverse effects of climate change, it doesn’t affect everyone equally.
In fact, American women are 60 percent more likely than men to suffer from mental illnesses because of climate change.
For low-income women, the incidence of mental health cases is twice that for high-income men. According to the report, mental health issues increase across the board the moment temperatures rise above 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies in Canada and Australia in the past decade have found an association between extremely high temperatures and increased hospital visits for mental and behavioral disorders.
“The key thing to understand about women and mental health is that mental health problems are often caused by and are always worsened by extended exposure to profound disadvantage, and that disadvantage is highly gendered,” says Helen Berry, professor of climate change and mental health at the University of Sydney, who holds the world’s first academic post dedicated to the issue.
It’s not only rising temperatures that threaten mental health. Studies from the U.N. have found that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change-related events, such as the devastating 2005 floods in Pakistan, are women. With 90 percent of West Africa’s Lake Chad now gone, women in the lake’s watershed regions in Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon are finding themselves having to walk farther every year to retrieve water for their families.
Berry says that while women don’t tend to develop different disorders from men, they experience more distress, and more often. “The climate change-related mental health risks are much the same for women as for men, except that women start out more socially and emotionally vulnerable and are therefore — due to this underlying vulnerability — more likely to be affected by climate change,” she says.
In the U.S., the Louisiana Healthy Aging Study conducted in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 found that women posted lower mental health scores than men. “Black women are on the front lines of these most vulnerable communities, and New Orleans is ground zero for climate impacts in the U.S.,” says Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. More than half of low-income families in New Orleans parish are headed by single mothers. “What we know, especially with the increasing impacts of the global climate crisis, is that these stressful conditions will increase.”
Studies have highlighted a link between increased rates of suicide and annual warming weather patterns — more people take their own lives in summer than in winter. While not all suicides are linked to mental health issues, the suicide rate among American women is rising faster than among men. Researchers believe that if rising temperatures are not curtailed, there could be as many as 14,000 additional suicides countrywide by 2050.
To be sure, the research published in the PNAS article relies on self-reported health concerns rather than professional diagnoses, meaning its findings are based on how the participants themselves felt. Another criticism: the relatively small corpus of research specifically linking climate change and women’s mental health problems.
Still, more and more work is being conducted into what a warming world is doing to our minds. The question is, while most of us have failed to act to save endangered species and habitats, will we now act to save ourselves?