The April Issue of Nature Climate Change focuses on the relationship between climate change and mental health. The introductory editorial summarizes the three articles on the topic and makes the case that 1. Mental health issues are often neglected in the general research about the health impacts of climate change, and 2. more research is needed. (Please note that all articles have restricted access and are available only for a fee. ) The first article in the issue, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss” discusses the personal grief experienced by people as their natural world changes, illustrated by the experiences of Indigenous people in Northern Canada and the Australian wheatbelt. The second article, “The case for systems thinking about climate change and mental health” examines the current state of research about climate change and mental health from a policy perspective, arguing for a more epidemiological research. The third article, “Mental health risk and resilience among climate scientists” discusses whether climate scientists themselves face unique mental health risks because they are immersed in depressing information. Dr. Susan Clayton, author of the third article, is also co-author of the influential 2014 report Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, published by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. In March 2017, the APA, ecoAmerica and Climate for Health updated Beyond Storms & Droughts with Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance .
Warmer temperatures have brought the Black-legged tick to Ontario, bringing an increase of Lyme’s Disease, especially for outdoor workers.
A Guidance Document was released by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in February 2018. Responsibilities of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Provider in the Treatment and Prevention of Climate Change-Related Health Problems (also appearing in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine ) is intended to set standards for physicians specializing in workplace health. The Guidance Document provides concise and very current information about the direct physical impacts related to climate change (heat stress and ultraviolet exposure, air quality, and allergic sensitivities) as well as indirect impacts (disaster zone exposure, stress and mental health, and waterborne and vector-borne disease). Most of this information is not new: two previous major reports have covered the same ground: The Lancet Countdown Report for 2017, (which links climate change and specific health conditions for the population at large, not just workers, and which included a report for Canada ), and the landmark U.S . Global Change Research Program report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment (2016) .
What is important about this new Guidance Document? It focuses on the workplace, and sets standards for the role of occupational health physicians which include a responsibility to protect workers. For example: “Provide guidance to the employers on how to protect working populations in the outdoors or in the field who are potentially exposed to the extreme temperatures…. Quickly identify employees with acute and chronic cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses within the organization who will be significantly affected by increasing temperature and worsening air quality, an increase in ozone, particulate matter, and high pollen count ….Provide effective guidance to employers about seasonal activity and address the increasing risk of vector-borne disease among the working population…. Deliver support to the employees at risk for mental illness due to disasters, loss, and migration by providing more comprehensive programs through their employment…. The article concludes with: “ OEM providers are called to be on the forefront of emerging health issues pertaining to working populations including climate change. The competent OEM provider should address individual and organizational factors that impact the health and productivity of workers as well as create policies that ensure a healthy workforce.”
There is also a call to action in a new report from France’s Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety. The full expert analysis is available only in French ; an English abstract is here . The report predicts the occupational risks associated with climate change, from now till 2050, and identifies the main drivers of change: rising temperatures, changes in the biological and chemical environment, and a change in the frequency and intensity of extreme events. What’s new in this report? It highlights the breadth of impact of climate change, stating that it will affect all occupational risks, except those associated with noise and artificial radiation. The report also makes recommendations, urging immediate workplace awareness campaigns and training about the health effects of climate change, with a preventive focus. From the English summary: “The Agency especially recommends encouraging all the parties concerned to immediately start integrating the climate change impacts that are already perceptible, or that can be anticipated, in their occupational risk assessment approaches, in order to deploy suitable preventive measures.” The full report (in French only): Évaluation des risques induits par le changement climatique sur la santé des travailleurs (262 pages) is dated January 2018 but released in April. It was requested by France’s Directorate General for Health and the Directorate General for Labour, to support the country’s 2011 National Adaptation to Climate Change Action Plan (PNACC).
Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance is a report released at the end of March by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica. The goal is to raise public awareness of the issue and to provide “climate communicators, planners, policymakers, public health professionals, and other leaders the tools and tips needed to respond to these impacts and bolster public engagement on climate solutions.” Although it doesn’t directly address workplace issues, much of the discussion is relevant. For example, the report catalogues the acute mental health impacts that result from the horror and disruption of natural disasters or extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina – depression, disrupted social relationships, domestic violence, and heightened intergroup aggression. The report also highlights women as being at higher risk: “because, on average, women have fewer economic resources than men, women may also be more affected, in general, by the stress and trauma of natural disasters.” (p.39).
Extreme weather and disasters focus attention, but there are also chronic impacts resulting from longer- term climate changes – the key example given is a proven increase in violence and inter-personal aggression associated with higher temperatures. Certain occupational groups are highlighted for their high risk to climate-related anxiety, including first responders to natural disasters, but also including health care-givers, and those directly employed in natural settings – conservation officers, park rangers.
The final section of the report deals with tips to build resilience at the individual and community level. It urges that training be provided for first responders so that they can identify and deal with appropriate compassion for the victims of natural disasters.
A new environmental psychology study released in December concludes that the most effective programs to encourage climate-friendly behaviour such as reducing energy consumption are those in which financial incentives (rebates, or cheaper prices) are paired with appeals to personal identity and values. The authors of Social Mobilization: How to Encourage Action on Climate Change review four decades of psychological research and find strong empirical support for employing a number of strategies : providing tailored information, soliciting commitment (e.g. pledges), recruiting leaders from within social networks, giving feedback, and using a variety of other social influence strategies . This report highlights several successful large-scale programs as models – mostly by utility companies in the United States . The study was financed and published by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), University of Victoria. A related, longer report by one of the authors, Reuven Sussman, was published in October 2016 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Behavior change programs: Status and impact is here (registration required, free).
Another recent study of found that the moral values of compassion and fairness influenced an individual’s willingness to take personal action to mitigate the effects of climate change. The authors, from Cornell University, showed that participants who were younger, more liberal, and reported greater belief in climate change, also showed increased willingness to act on climate change. Ingroup loyalty and authority were not supported as important predictor variables. However, the authors state : “Our finding that willingness to take action on climate change was related to moral values embraced by both liberals and conservatives suggests that it is too simplistic to use political ideology alone to predict support for climate change action. ” The full article, “Which Moral Foundations Predict Willingness to Make Lifestyle Changes to Avert Climate Change in the USA?” appeared in PLOSOne in October 2016, and was summarized by the Huffington Post in “ Why some people take action on climate change – and others don’t” (November).
Environmental psychology is also turning attention to the growing mental health issues caused by climate change. The first-ever International Conference on Building Personal and Psychosocial Resilience for Climate Change was held on November 3-4, 2016 in Washington D.C. . Climate Progress reports on the conference in “How to stay sane in the face of climate change” , and quotes psychiatrist Lise van Susteren: “before people let their fear turn to hopelessness … it’s critical to tell them that there are actionable things they can do, in their everyday life …. — measuring your own carbon footprint, putting solar panels on your own home, or paying for carbon offsets to counteract your own travel — can help a person take their fear and transfer that energy into positive action. And that in turn can help mitigate the mental trauma of the reality of climate change.” Climate Progress also quotes consultant Bob Doppelt, who told the conference “Psychological traumas of more frequent storms, floods, and fires associated with climate change, as well as toxic stresses — long term heat waves and droughts, food shortages, involuntary migration, loss of community and breakdown of culture — are eroding personal protective systems, amplifying preexisting mental health problems and creating new mental health issues.” Doppelt has recently published Transformational Resilience: How Building Human Resilience to Climate Disruption Can Safeguard Society and Increase Wellbeing .