Climate change is expected to cause 83 million excess deaths by the year 2100. Such statistics depict a bleak future for humanity and the planet alike, and are frequently shared via news networks, social media platforms, and streamable documentaries.
The reality of these expectations can take a toll on individuals’ mental health, and threatens to diminish the importance of individual actions in combating a changing climate. Driving fewer miles, eating less meat and showering for shorter periods, for example, may seem insignificant compared to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide emitted worldwide.
This perception of individual actions as insignificant, however, is very inaccurate and dangerous. In fact, individual actions against climate change may save the life of someone you know and love.
But first, can climate change really affect mental health? In short – yes.
Climate change can cause a variety of negative mental health outcomes among individuals of all ages around the world. Recently defined by the American Psychological Association, environmental anxiety is a chronic fear of “environmental doom” associated with previously occurring, ongoing, or projected changes to the Earth’s climate system. The manifestation and severity of environmental anxiety varies between individuals, but it can include feelings of fear, anger, and sadness.
Solastalgia and environmental distress are two related but clinically different mental health outcomes. Solastalgia is the experience of witnessing the environmental landscape changing one’s home, often described as “feeling homesick while still at home”. Instead, environmental grief is the presentation of clinical symptoms of grief caused by environmental losses, such as plant and animal species, or natural landscapes.
The common theme underlying every mental health outcome related to climate change is disability. People feel powerless about the rising temperatures. Advocates feel powerless when trying to influence the behavior of others. Researchers feel helpless in opposing politicians’ denials of scientific facts. However, we all have strength. We all have the power to help save lives that may have been lost to climate change. We all have the potential to be more… social?
Socially isolating behaviors increase a person’s risk of death during heat waves. Studies from Chicago show that individuals who lived alone had an increased risk of death during the heat waves of 1995 and 1999. Individuals who lived with at least one other person or left home frequently, on the other hand, were less likely to die during heat waves
Similar effects were found by a study conducted in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1999. In addition to residential isolation, relationship status also has an effect. The 2003 heat wave in France caused a disproportionate number of excess deaths among the unmarried (unmarried, divorced or widowed) compared to married people.
Now, I’m not suggesting moving or getting married in order to protect yourself or someone else from the heat, but knowing that socially isolated individuals are more susceptible to heat can, and should, influence our behaviors. Nearly one in four American adults age 45 or older is socially isolated. These may be parents, grandparents, children, friends or neighbors. We all probably know at least one person who is socially isolated, and calling them on the phone, visiting in person, or inviting them (especially if you have air conditioning) can be a life-saving measure on a sweltering day.
The aforementioned study of a 1995 Chicago heat wave found that social behaviors, such as having friends, participating in group activities, and even pet ownership, protected against death during a heat wave. Hot day or not, these actions can still be very beneficial due to the variety of physical and mental health risks associated with social isolation.
Working to combat climate change and its effects on humanity may reinforce the importance of individual actions, and even combat some environmental anxieties.
To be sure, heat-related deaths among socially isolated individuals represent only a small part of the potential human health impacts associated with climate change. Reducing your personal carbon footprint, as well as supporting climate-benefiting legislation and officials, is essential in reducing the severity of the changes humans have made to Earth’s climate system.
It is also important to realize that negative thoughts or feelings related to climate change can be signs of serious mental health effects, and should be discussed with a mental health professional. But single actions can still save lives, and buzzwords like “climate adaptation” and “shared health benefits” don’t have to be abstract, intangible concepts.
invitation…. Check in… call. Life-saving actions we all must take more often.
Mitchell Manoir lives in Cheshire.