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How Climate Change Affects Your Mental Health

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Climate change is usually discussed as a political and environmental issue (especially with the news that Trump is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement), but it's personal too. Researchers looked at over 200 previous studies on climate change and mental health for the paper "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance." The conclusion? Climate change affects your personal well-being, not just that of the environment.

Professor Susan Clayton, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and her team first looked at climate change and its immediate effects on humans—particularly from superstorms or extreme weather. (While there have always been hurricanes, studies show that rising ocean temperatures—a direct result of global warming—may be fueling stronger ones.) Researchers also looked at more chronic, long-term effects tied to climate change, like wildfires and heatwaves, along with effects like changing temperatures and rising sea levels.

They found that these changes increased trauma, shock, and PTSD, and compounded stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, one in six people living in affected areas met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and 49 percent of people living those areas developed anxiety or a mood disorder such as depression.

To further understand, Clayton and her colleagues also looked at one of the earliest meta-analyses of studies on the relationship between disasters and mental health, published in back in 1991 in the Psychological Bulletin. Between 7 and 40 percent of all subjects showed some form of psychopathology, with generalized anxiety disorder topping the list. 

It makes sense. Extreme weather conditions, like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, have the capacity to tear down buildings, walls, and homes, leaving many without their belongings or a place to sleep at night. Likewise, think about conditions like heatwaves or rising sea levels: The impacts on human health are less dramatic in the short term, perhaps, but in the long term can affect more people and have a fundamental impact on society, if people are forced to abandon their homes and jobs in areas that are no longer habitable.

On the bright side, nature, particularly green spaces, diminishes stress, the report also notes. (We have some more science-backed ways nature helps your health.) So if all this climate change news has you feeling down, we suggest calling your local representatives ASAP—mental health bonus points if you do it from a park. 

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