I’ve wanted to write about the impacts of the climate and nature crises on mental health for some time. That was before a very different crisis came to a head: with the killing of George Floyd finally raising the issue of systemic racism towards black people to the top of the agenda. As part of my own self reflection, I realise I have not adequately acknowledged and addressed the role of race in my own work. Before this realisation, I may not have thought to include the implications of race in this piece but, without considering it, any discussion on the subject would be incomplete.
Whilst I feel fortunate to work on tackling the climate crisis, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed. This can be from the huge task still ahead of us, from anxiety about the potential consequences of failure or the guilt I feel about not living up to my own standards of being an environmentalist. In spite of all this, I know I have the financial and social capital to protect myself from impacts such as extreme heat or food and water shortages, which are already being experienced by so many people across the world. And these impacts will not only disproportionately affect the physical wellbeing of the most vulnerable, but also their mental wellbeing.
Mental distress caused by climate impacts and nature loss
Studies have found that more frequent and severe heatwaves and extreme weather events have increased the severity of mental illness and suicide rates. Many also experience mental distress from witnessing the loss of species, the destruction of natural landscapes or fears over the predicted impacts yet to hit us. In addition, there is evidence to show that natural disasters disproportionately affect the mental health of those who are Latinx or Black. Studies have found evidence to suggest that being Black played an important role in the mental health impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. You were much more likely to experience depression and symptoms of PTSD if you were Black.
Proposed reasons why certain minority groups experience more severe mental health impacts from natural disasters include the knock on effects of years of internalised racism, and feelings of anger and depression that can be triggered as a result. In addition, people of colour can experience more trauma throughout their lives from racial discrimination and being denied equal access to healthcare, leaving them more vulnerable to psychological distress in the face of a crisis. A further reason, often cited, is the inequality of ethnic minorities’ access to resources and support services needed to recover or protect themselves against environmental disasters, meaning their lives are more likely to be affected, and this includes their mental health.
We shouldn’t be comfortable with the inequalities
However, more research is needed to fully understand the mental health impacts of environmental crises, along with how and why they disproportionately affect certain sections of society. This understanding is essential to ensure we not only address the symptoms but also the causes and systems that continue to perpetuate these impacts. We should not be comfortable with the idea that factors such as where you are born in the world, or the colour of your skin, can determine how your mental health could be affected by the climate and nature crises. Or that these factors influence how able you are to access services to protect yourself if your mental health is affected.
Physical health impacts of environmental issues, such as air pollution, and how they disproportionately affect certain groups, are more openly acknowledged. It’s time that people’s mental health was assessed in the same way.
For those of us dedicated to addressing the climate and nature crises, it is important to consider who exactly our solutions benefit. Mental health is a just one of the many devastating impacts humanity is facing as a result of these crises and until the environment sector recognises the role of race and embeds it in all its thinking, we can never succeed.
Thanks to Pip Batey from the Helix Centre and Emma Lawrance, a Mental Health Innovations Fellow at the Institute of Global Health Innovation, for their support and research insights. Emma is currently undertaking research on this topic, with plans to publish a briefing paper for policy makers.
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