Why aren't we talking more about climate change?
This year has been an interesting year for weather, from terrible floods to wonderful heat waves. Do we have to accept that from now on weather systems are going to become more unstable? If we do, how on earth will all this weather affect mental health?
We are, of course, a nation that loves talking about the weather. Perhaps we will all become happier because there will be so much more weather to talk about? Will more heat waves mean that dilapidated seaside towns like Great Yarmouth get rediscovered and become tourist havens once again?
Sadly this is unlikely to be the case. The World Health Organisation and the Lancet Commission have both stated that climate change is the largest threat to human health in the 21st Century. That means it is the AIDS, malaria or TB of today. The floods earlier this year were an awakening to the devastation that severe weather can have on our lives, even here in the UK. It was clear to all that the people affected were under a huge amount of stress. After the 2007 floods the Health Protection Agency stated that flooding has significant mental health effects, while a paper in the bulletin stated that this flooding exacerbated anxiety and depression in older people. Droughts have been shown to be associated with increased stress levels and cyclones have been shown to cause persisting PTSD in young people. Another interesting paper found that every 1oC increase in mean temperature above 18oC was associated with a 3.8 and 5.0% rise in suicide and violent suicide respectively. They also found that suicide increased by 46.9% during the 1995 heat wave.
So the evidence is pretty clear that the mental health effects of climate change are significant. Furthermore, last year the IPCC report on climate change stated “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”
SO, why are no psychiatrists talking about it? Climate change could potentially drastically affect people’s mental health in the near future and therefore will have a large impact on the way we work in mental health. I think one reason could be that climate change is not a classical disease entity and therefore we as doctors feel it is outside of our responsibility. Also, when you actually do take some time to look at the data, the outlook can become so terrifying that we choose denial rather than acceptance of the facts.
However, with the rest of the world wanting our embarrassingly unsustainable western lifestyles, alongside ongoing population explosions, the effects of climate change are only ever going to increase. I believe we will see these changes causing significant effects to mental health prevalence in the UK. Mental health services need to adapt to these changes, but most importantly, psychiatrists need to start talking about it. Perhaps then it will be harder to live in denial.