By Rowan Walrath, Mother Jones, February 18, 2019
Over the last year, Rebecca, a 35-year-old woman living in Washington, DC, had been losing sleep over the seemingly endless flow of apocalyptic environmental news. She fretted about the Trump administration’s loosening of emissions regulations and the United Nations’ dire predictions about climate change. In October, she sought help from a psychiatrist who put her on an antidepressant. “It sort of saps your emotional reserves,” she says, “this constant background feeling of anxiety.”
Forty percent of Americans reported hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month in 2015, and about half said they were worried about the topic that year, making it “a powerful environmental stressor,” according to a 2016 federal report. And that’s not the only way global warming causes psychological problems: A recent report from the American Psychological Association and Washington-based nonprofit ecoAmerica details some of the effects of natural disasters on mental health, including social disruption, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. Research suggests that heat waves affect our neural regulation, weakening our ability to regulate our emotions, and that people are more aggressive and less empathetic during warm periods. As Stanford University researcher Sanjay Basu put it to me, “We kind of lose our cool.”
Indeed, evidence suggests a connection between rising temperatures and suicide. A study published in July by researchers from California, Canada, and Chile found that as temperatures climbed over the course of decades in the United States and Mexico, so did suicide rates—by 0.7 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively. In Finland, more than 250 years of data show that temperature variability accounted for more than 60 percent of suicide variance. Poring over historical records, researchers found that positive correlations existed between temperatures and suicide rates from 1751 (when statistical authorities began documenting suicides in the country) until 1990, when a national suicide prevention program was put into place. Meanwhile, in Greece, male suicide rates correlate more significantly with temperature than with unemployment, even as the country’s unemployment rate has ballooned over the last 10 years. Indeed, climatic variables are consistently a better predictor of suicide than socioeconomic factors, according to a 2016 study of 29 European countries over a 13-year period. “Since meteorological variables seem to have an impact on mental health, there are concerns that climate change could lead to an increase in the rates of mental disorders and especially addictions and suicide rates,” the authors wrote.