Mental Health Impacts of Climate Change

Ecological grief might at one time have been relegated to the experience of those engaged directly in environmental conservation, research or activism. However, as Cunsolo and Ellis (2018) point out, “Research shows that people increasingly feel the effects of these planetary changes and associated ecological losses in their daily lives, and that these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being.”

Research into the mental health impacts of climate change ranges from an emphasis on the psychological toll of extreme weather events that align more with a disaster and emergency management perspective, to the emphasis for this module, which explores the implications of what the American Psychological Association has called “ambient stressors” or what the psychologist Lise Van Susteren calls “pre-traumatic stress” (Hopkins, 2019), and what others have called anticipatory loss. These describe the experiences not of disaster survivors but of people managing the emotions of potential future loss, or of less dramatic impacts, such as hotter summers, more frequent king tides or air quality warnings from wildfire smoke.

In this area, the American Psychological Association points out that these psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are [also] growing” (American Psychological Association, 2017, p. 4). They suggest that these responses, if left untended, don’t just pose challenges for individual or community wellbeing, but become a barrier to both mitigation and adaptation efforts.

“Once dismissed as secondary responses, emotions and feelings are now believed to play a fundamental role in how people process information and determine risk” (Pike et al., 2015, p.11).


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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