Warming harms mental health
Climate change can lead to an increase in
mental health problems, especially in
children, according to the experts.
Image: iStockphoto

The negative impact on mental health worldwide may be one of the most severe effects of climate change, with children at greatest risk, according to experts.

As climate change causes extreme weather events, drought, financial strain and changes in work and migration patterns, people will be at increasing risk from mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder and depression, said Dr Helen Berry from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University (ANU).

Despite the risk, this is an area that has received little attention, she added. 

She spoke at an Australian Science Media Centre online briefing on 16 October alongside Professor Brian Kelly, Director of the Centre for Rural and Remote Health at the University of Newcastle, and Dr Lyndall Strazdins, a Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health and the ANU.

"Mental health problems aren't just collateral damage from climate change, they could well be one of the most profound effects," said Dr Berry.

According to Dr Berry, scientists, health services and governments need to work together to stop the damage to mental health at a regional level before it becomes a serious problem.

"It's becoming apparent that we're experience the IPCC's worst case scenario of climate change - or even worse," said Berry. "We need to address the impact that this will have on mental health, now."

Climate change can affect people in a number of different ways, according to Dr Berry. It can act directly on mental health through trauma exposure, for example a cyclone caused by increasing temperatures, or it can act indirectly via disease and community changes.

"All of these factors interact and could result in a great increase in severe mental health problems," she added.

Currently half of all Australians will suffer mental illness at some point in their life, and this number is set to increase, according to the Dr Strazdins.

"Mental health problems are already the second largest burden of disease in Australia, and by 2020 this is predicted to be the case worldwide," said Dr Strazdins.

"Climate change amplifies the existing risks, particularly for children," she added.

According to Dr Strazdins, the mental health impacts of climate change will be more severe for children because they will be exposed to climate change for longer over their lifetime.

Children are also less mentally prepared to deal with the stress from climate change related trauma, such as bushfires, which are set to increase by up to 75 per cent by 2050, said Dr Strazdins. A study on children whose school burnt down during the Canberra 2003 fires found that at least 40 per cent were suffering mild to moderate post traumatic stress disorder.

The impact that climate change has on others, such as financial strain put on parents, will also affect children, Dr Strazdins added.

"A number of studies have revealed that children are already anxious and fearful about climate change. They need to be at the centre of the debate - yet the impact of climate change on children and the costs to future generations is not being discussed," said Dr Strazdins.

According to Professor Kelly, in order to minimise the problem we need to predict how people will adapt to and cope with climate change, and provide services that will help them to 'bounce back' more easily.

"The people most at risk are those that are in isolated regions. In order to reach them, health services need to work very closely with organisations that respond to other impacts of climate change, such as financial counsellors, vets and local banks.

"The aim is to try to see mental health as part of an overall strategy that deals with climate change impact," he said.

Despite their warnings, it's not all bad news - Dr Berry added that there could be a positive side effect to communities facing the risks of climate change.

"Climate change could motivate collective action, which is the number one thing to protect mental health," she said.

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