Assessing The Global Mental Health Toll Of Climate Change

8:37 minutes

Palm trees fallen over a wooden building that has destroyed supportive structures strewn around it
A view of the destruction from Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, 2013. Credit: Shutterstock

As the effects of climate change become more visible and widespread, people around the globe are dealing with the mental health impacts. But what are those impacts exactly, and how do they differ between people in different parts of the world? That’s been the focus of a rapidly growing area of research, which is seeking to understand the psychological impacts of climate change, sometimes referred to as “eco-anxiety.”

Guest host Maggie Koerth is joined by Dr. Alison Hwong, a psychiatry fellow at University of California San Francisco, to talk about what scientists have learned about global eco-anxiety and what strategies they’ve found to reduce its more harmful effects.

Further Reading

  • Do you want a space where you can process climate anxiety with others? Consider joining a Climate Cafe, which are also available online.
  • The Climate Psychiatry Alliance provides resources to therapists who want to better help clients facing eco-anxiety.

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Segment Guests

Alison Hwong

Dr. Alison Hwong is a clinical instructor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Segment Transcript

MAGGIE KOERTH: This is Science Friday. I’m Maggie Koerth. In the last few years, the fear and depression caused by climate change has gone from something we’d doom scroll about to something scientists are now seriously studying. They’re finding that eco anxiety is something we humans all share all around the world. But it looks different and has different impacts depending on where you are and who you are, kind of like climate change itself. Here to tell us what scientists have learned about the mental health impacts of climate change is Dr. Alison Hwong, clinical instructor at the University of California, San Francisco. Welcome to Science Friday.

ALISON HWONG: Thanks. I’m happy to be here.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you for joining us. I want to start out by defining what we mean by eco anxiety. When this term comes up in science, is it referring to fear and dread of immediate risks? Is it referring to existential doom about the future? Is it referring to that feeling of powerlessness to change something so much bigger than your own choices. And please stop me if I’m just using you as my personal psychiatrist now.

ALISON HWONG: So those are good questions. So yeah, this term, eco anxiety, there are other similar terms, climate distress, climate grief, or climate anxiety. There’s also a term, solastalgia, which refers to a nostalgia for your environment, even though you’re still living in it, for what used to be your environment and is disappearing or fading away. These are all terms to describe this kind of phenomenon we’re seeing of the experience of loss, increasing loss of an inhabitable planet. And I think it encapsulates many of the things you just said.

It incorporates anger, frustration, and grief around choices that have been made and seeing that many of the people in power maybe haven’t made choices, so that our planet could continue to thrive. It includes just sadness about the loss of islands and different landscapes that we find beloved. And so I think that, yeah, all of that is kind of incorporated in those terms.

MAGGIE KOERTH: When you’re looking at your patients and at data, how do you see those impacts playing out in their lives?

ALISON HWONG: Yeah. So just stepping back, we do generally think about climate change related mental health effects on three levels, one being these direct impacts. So if you’ve experienced a hurricane, or flooding, wildfires that have destroyed your home, you might experience that as a traumatic event. So we might see depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder out of those events. And then we also think about indirect effects of climate change. So if drought has affected your crop yields and you’re a farmer, that might affect your economic livelihood.

And then that could also affect depression, anxiety, mood symptoms. And then we think about things like eco anxiety, which is this more kind of holistic meta experience of seeing climate change happen and seeing the planet change. So I think all three of those kind of come to the clinic. And I see mostly older patients now, but I do see some young adults. And there definitely are differences in– it seems like young adults are experiencing more of the acute effects of climate change.

And part of it is for young people, they will live their entire lives affected very much by this rapid climate change from the day they’re born. And older people tend to have often built more of resilience over their lifetimes. So I see things both– in my area in Northern California, people are affected by the wildfire smoke when they can’t go out of their house safely. It’s very existential not to be able to safely breathe the air outside of your home.

MAGGIE KOERTH: There was this large international survey that was done in 2021. And I’m really curious to find out a little bit about how eco anxiety looks different and how it looks similar all around the world.

ALISON HWONG: Yeah, this was a great study. This was done by Caroline Hickman and her colleagues in the UK and the US. And they surveyed about 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 across 10 diverse countries around the world. And they asked, how worried are you about climate change? And how much does climate change affect your daily functioning? And at least, to my surprise, the US and the UK came out near the bottom of the list in terms of how worried young people were about climate change. And the countries where respondents had the most worry were the Philippines, Brazil, Nigeria, India. And so this idea that worries about climate change is a wealthy country problem or wealthy people are worried about, I think that was very much overturned through that survey.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Are there differences in how these mental health impacts play out for people? Depending on place, depending on cultural response, do you see something different for how people are suffering from eco anxiety in Brazil versus those in India, for example?

ALISON HWONG: That’s a really good question. I will say that there have been studies looking at various Indigenous communities who have, of course, long cultural ties to the land and whose very livelihoods are bound up with working on the land, tending to the land. And those are groups that seem to be disproportionately affected by climate change, also groups where sometimes these are island nations where the very islands they live on are disappearing. So these are groups where more research has been done in terms of the type of grief where you’re really losing your ancestral home, which is, I think, a very different level of loss than for others of us who have moved around a lot.

MAGGIE KOERTH: So the story of what’s driving eco anxiety, the effects it has on people, those can all vary from place to place. How does that change how scientists talk about solutions? Are there different ways to lessen eco anxiety if you’re in the US versus if you’re someone in the Philippines?

ALISON HWONG: Yeah. Good questions. Well, some of the work being done is actually about empowering local communities to develop their own solutions. In terms of some of the recommendations for managing eco anxiety, we often say, we didn’t get here alone through just individual action. And we won’t get out of this alone. So really connecting to your local community and taking collective action is one really productive way forward, finding some way to feel like you have agency in this and you can take a step forward.

And so finding local groups– there are these groups called climate cafes, which are groups that gather and talk about distress related to climate change and potentially ways to move forward. Those are ways that I think we can locally think about what is my sphere of influence, and how can I actually meaningfully move forward and make sense of what’s happening with climate change in my area?

MAGGIE KOERTH: If you don’t mind talking about this a little from a personal perspective, I am really curious about how it feels to study something that is so powerful and so painful. In doing this work, do you feel like you’re taking on more eco anxiety or that you’re taking action in ways that alleviates it?

ALISON HWONG: Yeah. That’s a good question too. There are two sides of the coin. One is there is a kind of secondary trauma. I mean, I do approach this from a trauma-informed perspective. So any of us who see people who experience trauma, there is a secondary type of trauma from bearing witness to all of the trauma, and loss, and trying to heal the healer. On the other hand, I do think doing this research is my way of taking action and feeling I have some agency, so that I don’t just feel like I’m helplessly watching climate change happen in front of me. So to me, it’s a productive and meaningful way to move forward.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about this.


MAGGIE KOERTH: Dr. Allison Hwong is a clinical instructor at the University of California, San Francisco.

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