Climate change has been front and centre in the news of late, with a UN report released last week stating irreparable damage could be done if substantial change isn’t initiated in the next 12 years.

Now, there’s research that says climate change may damage our mental health.

Last week, a team of 28 specialists convened by the Lancet medical journal listed climate change among the greatest threats to mental health globally. Scientists predict that ferocious storms and more frequent weather extremes will affect the human psyche in costly ways, from more depression and anxiety to increased suicide rates.

Of particular concern are intense heat waves.

heat wave suicide

There are a couple of theories when it comes to heat’s effect on our mental health. One is that some of the same neurotransmitters used by the brain to regulate the body’s temperature are also used to control emotions. The more neurotransmitters needed to cool the body, the less available to suppress emotions like aggression, impatience or violence.

The other is that climate change will cause hotter nights in some regions, which will likely result in less sleep. Lack of sleep leading to sleep deprivation increases the risk for depression and suicidal thinking.

Whatever the mechanism, “sound mental health — a critical facet of human wellbeing — has the potential to be undermined by climate change,” researchers report in the journal PNAS.

climate change suicide

We know that humans have already pushed the Earth’s temperature up by about 1 degree Celsius globally, and the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we’ll need to cut coal consumption by one third of current levels by 2030 to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would save the majority of species from climate change.

Over the past decade, researchers have warned global warming is likely to amplify natural disasters that can cause serious bodily harm — droughts that lead to famine, drownings from typhoons, and heat-related deaths such as the 70 who died from extreme heat in Quebec in July.

It should be noted that it’s not likely someone becomes severely depressed solely because it’s really hot outside. Most mental illnesses have their roots in childhood and adolescence, the Lancet Commission paper says. Still, studies in the U.S. and South Africa have linked hot temperatures with increased rates of violent crime, robbery and assault. Other studies have found that the stress hormone, cortisol, is triggered with by increasing heat. Additionally, psychiatric hospital visits increase during hotter weather.

The Lancet report focuses on indirect ways that climate change can affect a person’s mental well-being through natural disasters, but acknowledges “not everywhere is facing an increased risk of cyclones due to changes in hurricane patterns,” said Tamma Carleton, a postdoctoral scholar with the Climate Impact Lab at the University of Chicago.

“But virtually everywhere around the world we’re facing warmer temperatures, and there is a lot of evidence of direct effects of warming on mental health.”

With such dire prognostications, one must hope that there are paths to change in global human behavior that circumvents the outlandish opinions of certain political leaders who’ve refuted the science of climate change.

No, it will not change itself.

We now know that climate change will not only put ourselves and many of the planet’s species in physical danger, but mental as well.

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