Mental health issues on the rise due to global warming say scientists

The problems associated with global warming are coming closer home say researchers. The warnings came in the form of a United Nations report that said that climate change catastrophe would become a routine occurrence come 2040.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published this report this week (Monday 8th October 2018) saying that the greenhouse emissions are at their highest at present and at given rates they could spell disaster. Earlier the scientists had predicted a 2 degrees Celsius rise in earth’s temperature could have dangerous consequences. They not have said that a 1.5 degree rise is enough to tip the balance.

Image Credit: Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock

In a landmark study published this Monday (8th October 2018) in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers have said that global warming could take a serious toll on mental health of humans. This could happen 22 years before the 2040 deadline set before, they add. The authors explain that yearly warming climates, short term exposure to extremes of weather as well as routine exposure to cycles could have a detrimental effect on the mental health of individuals.

Study co-author Nick Obradovich, MIT Media Lab research scientist has explained that climate change can affect suicide rates and also have an effect on human moods. Exposure to heat, he said, can worsen mental health issues. The team led by Obradovich looked at mental health information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System of over 2 million Americans and correlated it with daily meteorological and climatic data changes between 2002 and 2012. He warned that a 2 degree Celsius rise can push human mental health over the edge.

The participants were asked to report their mental health status, stress, anxiety, depression and mood changes over 30 days. The team then correlated this with the climate changes and noted that when monthly temperatures averaged over 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit or more, the mental health problems also soared when compared to temperatures around 10 to 15 degrees Celsius (50-59 degrees Fahrenheit). Further precipitation days also raised mental health problems they noted. In months when it rained for over 25 days, there was a rise in mental health problems by 2 percent, they noted when compared to months when there was no precipitation. Researchers warned that as the earth’s temperatures rose, the rain fall also increased due to increased water evaporation. Increase in evaporation also leads to more rain and storms they add.

The results of the study were presented in three ways;

  • Exposure to a month with higher average temperature (over 30 degree C) was associated with more mental health issues.
  • A five year warming of the climate by 1 degree Celsius was associated with a 2 percent rise in mental health problems.
  • Mental health problems of people affected by the hurricane Katrina were compared with those who were unaffected. It was found that those who experienced Katrina had a 4 percent more risk of mental health issues.

The team also found that the monthly effects of temperature on mental health problems were far more for women than for men (60 percent more than males). Further low-income individuals seemed to be affected more (60 percent more) with climate change than other income groups.

Researchers have added a note to their study saying that the major limitation of this study was that the data came from a developed nation and from temperate climates. They called for more studies in the “regions with less-temperate climates, insufficient resources, and a greater reliance on ecological systems” and predicted that these regions may have more “severe effects of climate change on mental health.” The researchers also add that like all species humans may also adapt to warmer climates “technologically and physiologically” and so these problems may be solved in the near future. They write that humans could possibly adapt by, “psychological coping mechanisms, such as avoidance, seeking social support, or fostering mental preparedness.”

The authors concluded in their study, “Given the vital role that sound mental health plays in personal, social, and economic well-being our findings provide added evidence that climatic changes pose substantial risks to human systems.”

Ananya Mandal

Written by

Ananya Mandal

Ananya is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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