UCSF Sustainability Stories

Sophia Labeko, March 2022

Q&A: How Mental Health Is Impacted by Extreme Weather

Chances are, you have encountered climate change related mental illness. It can be hard to recognize in others, but perhaps you had a friend who shared their feelings of uncertainty and fear as the bright red skies engulfed the Bay Area on September 9, 2020.

How did you feel that day?

In June 2019, the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences created the Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force, to “serve as a catalyst to embolden each one of the department’s faculty, staff, and trainees to take individual and collective action to prevent and mitigate the mental health consequences of climate change.”

Andreea Seritan(right), MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, geriatric psychiatrist at UCSF Health, and one of the co-leads of the task force gave us insight into the unwavering relationship between climate change and mental health.

What’s the connection between climate change and mental health?
There are multiple well-documented mental health consequences of climate change at the individual and community level.

At the individual level, people may experience an increase in symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and sleep disturbances after being exposed to natural disasters. Heat waves have a strong correlation to increased violence and suicide, and people taking certain psychiatric medications are at higher risk of dying.

At the community level, climate change and weather-related disasters such as wildfires, floods, storms, and hurricanes, can disrupt social structure and amplify health inequities. Communities of color, socially disadvantaged, and otherwise marginalized individuals suffer disproportionately, both by living in areas that may be prone to floods, hurricanes, and pollution and also due to having limited access to care in the aftermath of catastrophic events.

People are traumatized by displacements from natural disasters, and re-traumatized when displacement occurs on a regular basis. This happens to the North Bay communities when they go through planned power outages, in addition to facing weather-related disasters. It’s becoming a yearly occurrence, as one resident of a North Bay community remarked, “we used to have grape harvesting every fall, now we have wildfires every fall.”

All these phenomena have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do climate change related mental health problems manifest?
To my knowledge, there is no unique presentation in adults. Patients present with symptoms as described above after major natural disasters or during heat waves. This recent New York Times article describes a range of anxiety and grief symptoms, including panic attacks.

In children, there is lot more anxiety that may not be related directly to incidents, but to a more pervasive concern about the fate of our planet.

Is there a singular climate change fear/consequence that affects people’s mental health the most?
In my opinion, there is no single fear. There is both the fear of an uncertain future, which may be paralyzing and causing us to not take action, and the everyday anxiety, i.e., will my elderly parent have enough power for their oxygen tank in the event of a power outage? The latter is a real example. People died during the 2021 Hurricane Ida in New Orleans because they were trapped without power for days, with no access to life-saving care.

What are some strategies for coping with climate change?
1. Educate ourselves - knowledge is the first step toward action, however information needs to be “chunked” in smaller pieces so as not to be overwhelming.

2. Focus on one simple goal, like cleaning the beach once a month, planting a tree, taking a walk in nature every week. Larger goals may be unattainable, therefore increasing the sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

3. Try to envision a brighter future, focus on the positive, instead of the “doom and gloom”.

4. Any strategy that can help increase individual and community resilience–mindfulness, contact with nature–it all helps.

Led by Elissa Epel, PhD, Andreea Seritan, MD, Adri Jayaratne, MA, and Samantha Ybona, MA, in consultation with Robin Cooper, MD the task force is organized in four work groups: Clinical Care and Community Relations, Advocacy, Education, and Research and Evaluation. A summary of completed and in-progress task force projects is depicted in a manuscript published in Academic Psychiatry.

Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force closely collaborates with the UC Center for Climate, Health and Equity.