Exclusive: Understanding the Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health

Original story posted on: March 16, 2020

Ecological grief and climate-related dysphoria.

In our last climate-related article and talk, we focused on both nostalgia and solastalgia. Today, we will concentrate on conditions that also connect with loss and sadness.

The first is ecological grief, which is rising across the world. It is a term that can be defined as “grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.” It is no wonder that we use the term “Mother Earth” to psychologically depict how our environment can nurture us; damage to that environment can feel like a maternal injury. Even media observation can create these sensations, such as when viewing the melting of polar ice or the struggles of polar bears. In America, we may feel sadness in the missing butterflies and bees in our gardens, a favorite hiking spot lost to wildfires, or the anticipation that a local beach will be eroded by the next superstorm.

To add insult to these injuries and losses, certain groups are even more vulnerable. Poor communities and countries suffer the worst after hurricanes. The elderly are at particular risk of heat-related illness or death. Racism may be evident in the disproportionate exposure to toxic waste sites or water containing lead, such as in Flint, Mich. Native American populations may have inherited ecological grief because they have experienced the loss of their homes and habitats over the course of generations, as they were expelled from more nourishing lands to reservations.

Then there are the climate scientists themselves, who struggle with grieving as they are studying climate changes. Here are the words of one of them:

“There’s a power and an honor to grief, because it means that we have loved something, and we’ve had a connection to a place or to (a) species of the planet... more and more, people are coming forward to share their pain... because ecological grief is so much now a part of the public narrative.” -Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who led a really amazing movement across Canada, bringing a lawsuit against the government for “the right to be cold.”

While some people can develop full-blown, ICD-10-documented clinical depression after climate-related losses, more common is a kind of existential climate-related despair. Here are some of the differences between despair and depression:

In despair, the emotion is emptiness; in depression, it is intense sadness.

In despair, there is responsiveness to positive events; in depression, unhappiness is persistent.

In despair, positive emotions are present; in depression, that is diminished.

In despair, thought content is often on external, climate-related problems; in depression, thought is on personal guilt and failure.

In despair, self-esteem is preserved, whereas in depression, there is a feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing.

Despair is particularly worrisome because it can morph into hopelessness, which can then lead to suicidal ideation, a topic we will focus on in a future talk. Grief, on the other hand, is usually time-limited and has the potential for increasing resilience.

As painful as both ecological grief and despair may be, they may represent an appropriate concern for the environment, and rather than denial or apathy, and after some appropriate mourning, they can lead to the insight and action that most should have every day.

Programming Note: Listen to Dr. Moffic report this story live today during Talk Ten Tuesday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

H. Steven Moffic, MD

H. Steven Moffic, MD, is an award-winning author whose fifth book, “The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Health,” is considered a seminal study on healthcare ethics. Always in demand as a writer, Dr. Moffic has attracted a national audience with his three blogs: Psychiatry Times, Behavior Healthcare, and Over 65. H. Dr. Moffic, who is also a popular guest on Talk Ten Tuesdays, recently received the Administrative Psychiatry Award from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Association of Psychiatrist Administrators (AAPA).

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