Another reason to make eco-friendly living cool? Climate change is officially bad news for mental health


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Photo: Unsplash/Elijah M Henderson

A groundbreaking climate change report issued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) yesterday has sparked an internet-wide conversation about what a future of hotter temperatures and increased amounts of greenhouses gases could mean for the future. But while climate scientists are still scratching their heads about what technologies might come to the rescue, a new study suggests that—just like the wellbeing of the planet—our mental health could majorly suffer from the uptick in temperature.

The research, which was published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a link between a rise in average monthly temperatures with an increase in mental health issues, reports CNN. Worse, over a five year period, global temperatures going up by 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 Fahrenheit) led to even more mental strife.

To find these results, researchers compiled data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which contains mental health data on almost 2 million randomly sampled US residents. Then, they considered that data alongside meteorological data from 2002 to 2012. “We gathered about a decade’s worth of data from this survey, which is about 2 million people responding to the same question. The question basically asks: How, over the recent period, has your mental health status been?,” says  Nick Obradovich, PhD, lead author of the study and a research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.

“The most important point of this [new] study is that climate change, indeed, is affecting mental health, and certain populations—women and the poor—are disproportionally impacted,” — Jonathan Patz, MD

With all this information in hand, the researcher’s team analyzed the date from three different perspectives: first, by studying the data over a 30-day period; second, by looking at long-term mental health effects in specific cities; and finally, by comparing the mental health of those affected by Hurricane Katrina with that of people from similarly populated areas that hadn’t experienced a disaster of that magnitude. Each deeper dive revealed that weather and mental health may be closely tied, particularly for those with lower incomes, existing mental health problems, and who are women.

“The most important point of this [new] study is that climate change, indeed, is affecting mental health, and certain populations—women and the poor—are disproportionally impacted,” says Jonathan Patz, MD, a professor and director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although, Dr. Obradovich does points out that researchers don’t yet know why spiking temperatures are effecting our minds. “For example, is poor sleep due to hot temperatures the thing that produces mental health problems? We have a lot of work to do to figure out precisely what is causing what,” he explains. And of course the trauma of losing a home or loved ones due to a natural disaster impacts mental health as well.

In the wake of both this study and the UN’s report, now is the time to call your representatives to ask them to use their voices to speak out against the 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of all global emissions. Remember, we only have one Earth, folks. And if we’ve learned anything in the past couple of years, it’s that armchair politics just don’t cut it.

Yes, ditching your plastic straws and not flushing your contact lenses will help, too. 

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