Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework

Abstract

Objectives

Climate change will bring more frequent, long lasting and severe adverse weather events and these changes will affect mental health. We propose an explanatory framework to enhance consideration of how these effects may operate and to encourage debate about this important aspect of the health impacts of climate change.

Methods

Literature review.

Results

Climate change may affect mental health directly by exposing people to trauma. It may also affect mental health indirectly, by affecting (1) physical health (for example, extreme heat exposure causes heat exhaustion in vulnerable people, and associated mental health consequences) and (2) community wellbeing. Within community, wellbeing is a sub-process in which climate change erodes physical environments which, in turn, damage social environments. Vulnerable people and places, especially in low-income countries, will be particularly badly affected.

Conclusions

Different aspects of climate change may affect mental health through direct and indirect pathways, leading to serious mental health problems, possibly including increased suicide mortality. We propose that it is helpful to integrate these pathways in an explanatory framework, which may assist in developing public health policy, practice and research.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by The Australian National University general facilities and not by any specific research grant.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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Correspondence to Helen Louise Berry.

Additional information

This paper belongs to the special issue “Climate changes health”.

Appendix

Appendix

Two case studies illustrating how climate change may affect societal and demographic factors that may, in turn, affect mental health security

Increasing heat exposure on working people in tropical countries

There is a physiological limit to the ability of humans to carry out strenuous work in hot conditions (air temperatures above 37°C and at high humidity level). To prevent heat stroke in such conditions, workers have to reduce their work output and avoid working during the hottest part of the day. Increasing heat exposure may, therefore, reduce income, disrupt daily social activities and create psychological distress. For example, we have observed work situations at construction sites in India and shoe factories in Vietnam where the long actual working hours and heat exposure (requiring lengthy rest periods during the hottest hours) demand 15–16 h of daily presence at the workplace (Kjellstrom et al. 2009d). Increasing temperatures with climate change would make this situation worse.

Drought and long-term drying in Australia

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has concluded that the severity of the recent drought, 2001–2007, was, in part, due to the underlying warmer temperatures caused by climate change (Nicholls and Collins 2006). The recent Kenny Review of the Social Impact of Drought in Australia (Drought Policy Review Expert Social Panel 2008) has described the increased hardships that have been experienced in rural lifestyles: livelihoods are at stake, and those who are most vulnerable, geographically or socioeconomically, appear to be worst affected. The stresses of lost income, debt and damage to property have spilled over into mental health problems for some and to the tragedy of despair and suicide for a few (Berry et al. 2008). The severity and distribution of these mental health problems appear, also, to have been influenced by aspects of community—resources, cohesion, resilience and external supports; where community support has been strong, communities appear to have fared better than where less support has been available.

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Berry, H.L., Bowen, K. & Kjellstrom, T. Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. Int J Public Health 55, 123–132 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-009-0112-0

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Mental health
  • Public health
  • Adaptation