This is second of a four-part series on Community Commons highlighting the impact of climate change on human health, communities, and economies. The series is co-authored by Chris Paterson of Community Initiatives.
In our previous article on the health impacts of climate change, we discussed implications on our physical health- heat waves, floods, and drought can give way to heat-related illnesses, contaminated water supplies, and respiratory illnesses, for example. But when we dive deeper into studying the effects of climate change, we see even further reaching implications. What we see, is that our climate, our environment isn’t just something physical, it’s a force that has the ability to disrupt how connected we feel to our community and to each other. Something unacknowledged by most of us.
Climate Change Impact on Mental Health and Social Cohesion
Our well-being extends beyond our physical health, but also the health of our relationships and community. When those connections are fractured, either gradually or immediate, our psychological health becomes exposed to harmful stressors, like climate change. According to the American Psychological Association, there are a number of acute and chronic mental health conditions linked to climate change: trauma and shock, PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, compounded stress, aggression and violence, loss of autonomy and control, loss of personal and occupation identity, feelings of helplessness, fear, and fatalism. In extreme weather events many people experience great loss (i.e. loss of a loved one, home, income etc.) and are left with the task of relocating or rebuilding. Immediate reactions to the loss and trying to determine next steps can lead to fear, anger, anxiety, guilt, and social withdrawal. Whether these conditions lead to mental health issues like PTSD has a lot to do with the magnitude of the weather event. People who lost a loved one, have a lower socioeconomic status, and inadequate social support are few other risk factors.
Likewise, the psychological impacts of climate change on individuals naturally extend to the community. Social cohesion and social capital, the “…good will, fellowship, mutual sympathy, and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit”, are imperative in building mental and physical health resilience in communities. Disaster scholars have consistently noted the importance of social cohesion and networks during and after catastrophes. In addition to trust and emotional support, networks also provide financial and nonfinancial resources. Loans or gifts for property repair, shelter, debris removal, child care, sharing information, etc., are much more likely to be part of the culture in cohesive communities than ones where individuals are isolated. In a 2003 study of the 1995 Chicago heatwave, researchers found that poor, isolated, elderly African Americans were more likely to die and not be found for days. In contrast, nearby neighborhoods with similar economic and demographic qualities did not experience the same mortality rates. A primary difference between these two groups of neighborhoods was the extent of public organizational space and social capital – more social capital, connectedness and cohesion resulted in lower mortality and higher resilience.
Members of an Inuit community noted changes in their land and local climate, describing a sense of “being consumed” by changing climatic conditions. Changing patterns in land, snow, ice, vegetation, and weather events impact every area of their life. For people who are emotionally tied to land and whose livelihoods depend on it- the changing climate is particularly difficult. They attributed the changes to increased food insecurity, sadness, anger, family stress, and a breakdown in social cohesion.
Violence and interpersonal aggression are also two significant ways social cohesion can be broken down. A growth in inequalities related to climate change compounds anxiety and frustration in populations that are already stressed. Researchers found a causal relationship between heat and violence, such as when the average temperature increases, incidents of violence and aggression also increases. Another study found an increase in domestic violence after Hurricane Katrina.
What these brief examples highlight once again is how climatic conditions can and do directly impact people’s mental health which is often expressed in destabilizing not only interpersonal relationships, but community one’s as well. This is most true among vulnerable populations.
Individual and Community Vulnerabilities
These impacts will vary across individuals and communities simply because individuals and communities are vulnerable to climate change in varying ways. For example, those communities with higher populations of children and elderly are more vulnerable to the physical and psychological impacts of climate change. Additionally, communities with outdated infrastructure, higher levels of poverty, or poor access to health services – especially with infant, elderly, disabled, and migrant populations – are not only more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but can be less likely to rebound as quickly—adding additional stress and anxiety to already overburdened individuals. In many of these same vulnerable communities, there already exists significant social stressors. These oftentimes overlooked populations are the ones who are likely to be the most traumatized (and unable to rebound) by severe weather-related events.
The maps below show where some of America’s most vulnerable populations live by county.
However, what puts our communities in an even more vulnerable position is the perception that while climate change is happening (believed by 70 percent of Americans), many still believe “It won’t affect me.” Recent data released by the Yale Program on Climate Communication highlighted the disconnect many Americans still feel towards climate change as it relates to them personally. On average, 63 percent of Americans believe climate change will harm people in developing countries, 58 percent believe it will harm people in the US, while 40 percent believe it will harm them personally.
The fact is, from all corners of the world to our own communities, the impact of climate change, whether gradual or immediate, is or will be experienced by everyone. An increase in heatwaves, rising sea levels, floods, drought, and increased precipitation are all indicators of a changing climate – and with it come powerful implications for each one of us.