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How Climate Change Affects Your Community’s Mental Health (and What to Do About It)

By Ellen Hall
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Climate change is already affecting us in many ways. Around the country, communities are dealing with and preparing for the physical impacts, including sea level rise, extreme heat, flooding, and drought. But there’s another side of climate change that community leaders also need to be aware of – the toll it takes on mental health and social cohesion.

A new research report compiled by the American Psychological Association (APA), our parent organization ecoAmerica, and our sister organization Climate for Health takes an in-depth look at the psychological impacts of climate change. These impacts range from acute (for example, the stress and mental trauma created by a climate-related natural disaster) to more lingering effects such as depression, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. Both types of impacts can put strain on social and community relationships, leading to increased levels of aggression, violence, and crime.

As the infographic below explains, the mental, physical, and community health impacts of climate change are intertwined. Compromised physical health can affect mental health, and vice versa. Climate impacts can also create social instability by disrupting livelihoods, causing forced migration, and impacting the ways in which people interact with one another. Anxiety and uncertainty about the future can erode interpersonal relationships. Extreme heat has also been linked to increased aggression and violence – a big concern when cities from Anchorage to New Orleans are breaking high-temperature records.

While climate change affects everyone to some degree, the impacts are not equally distributed. Some people will experience a climate-related disaster firsthand, some will be gradually impacted, and some will experience the effects only indirectly. Additionally, some populations are inherently more vulnerable to impacts: children and the elderly, low-income communities, those living in risk-prone areas, those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and those whose livelihood and/or culture are directly tied to the natural environment.

Many communities are responding to the physical threats of climate change by strengthening the resilience of their infrastructure – for example, building sea walls or upgrading their storm water management systems. But improving their community’s psychological resilience is also important. A number of climate solutions have the added benefit of enhancing mental health: active commuting such as walking or biking improves physical and mental well-being, good public transportation creates opportunities for positive social engagement, and green spaces have been proven to reduce people’s stress levels.

In addition, communities that have a strong social fabric, an effective disaster plan that involves community members, and have taken efforts to reduce social disparities are better equipped to respond to and quickly recover from climate impacts. According to Dr. Susan Clayton, an author of the study, one of the best ways to defend against threats to mental health is to strengthen social cohesion. "Social connections are very important to individual well-being in the best of times, and are a key indicator of resilience following negative events," says Clayton.

See below for 13 tips for building a more resilient community. These tips are explained more fully in the report, which also outlines what individuals and health professionals can do to build personal and community resilience. Visit ecoAmerica’s research page to download the report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, and watch a recorded webinar featuring Dr. Clayton and APA’s Howard Frumkin.