“Climate change is projected to cause 83 million excess deaths by 2100.” Statistics such as this depict a grim future for humanity and the planet alike, and are more frequently being shared across news networks, social media platforms and stream-able documentaries.
The reality of these projections can negatively affect individuals’ mental health, and threatens to devalue the importance of individual actions in the fight against the changing climate. Driving fewer miles, eating less meat and taking shorter showers, for instance, may seem insignificant relative to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide emitted worldwide.
This perception of individual actions as unimportant, however, is both inaccurate and extremely dangerous. In fact, individual actions against climate change may save the life of someone you know and love.
But first, can climate change really affect mental health? In short — yes.
Climate change can, and is, causing a variety of adverse mental health outcomes among individuals of all ages in all parts of the world. Recently defined by the American Psychological Association, eco-anxiety is a chronic fear of “environmental doom” related to previously occurred, ongoing or projected changes to the Earth’s climate system. The manifestation and severity of eco-anxiety differs between individuals, but can include feelings of fear, anger and sadness.
Solastalgia and ecological grief are two related, but clinically different, mental health outcomes. Solastalgia is the experience of witnessing the environmental landscape of one’s home change, and is often described as “feeling homesick while still at home.” Alternatively, ecological grief is the presentation of clinical symptoms of grief caused by ecological losses, such as plant and animal species, or physical landscapes.
A common theme underlying each of these climate change-related mental health outcomes is powerlessness. Individuals feel powerless against rising temperatures. Advocates feel powerless trying to influence others’ behaviors. Researchers feel powerless in opposition to politicians’ denial of scientific facts. We all, however, have power. We all have the power to help save lives that otherwise may have been lost due to climate change. We all have the power to be more…social?
Socially isolating behaviors increase a person’s risk of death during heat waves. Studies from Chicago show that individuals who were living alone had increased risk of death during the 1995 and 1999 heat waves. Individuals who lived with at least one other person or frequently left the house, on the other hand, were less likely to die during the heat waves.
Similar effects were found by a study conducted in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1999. Beyond residential isolation, relationship status also has an effect. A 2003 heat wave in France caused a disproportionate number of excess deaths among non-married (single, divorced or widowed) people compared to married people.
Now, I am not suggesting to move or marry in order to protect yourself or someone else against the heat, but knowing that socially isolated individuals are more vulnerable to heat can, and should, influence our behaviors. Roughly one in four American adults ages 45 and older are socially isolated. These could be parents, grandparents, children, friends or neighbors. We all likely know at least one person who is socially isolated, and calling them on the phone, visiting them in person or inviting them over (especially if you have air conditioning) could be a lifesaving action on an extremely hot day.
The aforementioned study of the 1995 Chicago heat wave found that socially engaging behaviors, such as having friends, participating in group activities and even pet ownership, were protective against death during the heat wave. Hot day or not, these actions can still be very beneficial due to the variety of physical and mental health risks associated with social isolation.
Acting in the fight against climate change and its effects on humanity may reinforce the importance of individual actions, and even combat some feelings of eco-anxiety.
To be sure, heat-related deaths among socially isolated individuals represent only a small fraction of the potential human health effects associated with climate change. Reducing your personal carbon footprint, as well as supporting climate-benefiting legislation and officials, are essential in limiting the severity of changes humans have inflicted on the Earths’ climate system.
It is also very important to recognize that negative thoughts or emotions related to climate change can be signs of serious mental health effects, and should be discussed with a mental health professional. But individual actions can still save lives, and buzzwords such as “climate adaptation” and “health co-benefits” do not have to be such intangible, abstract concepts.
Call… visit…. check in… invite. Lifesaving actions we should all perform more often.
Mitchell Manware lives in Cheshire.