Climate change has started to be widely recognized as one of the greatest threats faced by humanity in the 21st century. Human-induced environmental changes include global warming due to changes in the composition of the atmosphere, species extinction, land surface transformation, deforestation, rising sea levels, erosion of the ozone layer, as well as acidification of lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans (Lewis & Maslin, 2015; Ruddiman, 2013). It is easy to observe an increasing frequency and intensity of climate change-induced natural disasters, which can result in severe mental health consequences for the population.
Several authors (Berry et al., 2010; Palinkas & Wong, 2020) have identified three main types of climate change events that can have a negative impact on mental health:
Each type of climate change can be associated with specific economic losses, reduced economic productivity, population displacement, social conflict and violence, threats to health and well-being associated with potential injuries, deaths or spread of illnesses, among other consequences (Palinkas & Wong, 2020). Those factors can have both direct and indirect impacts on the population's psychological well-being (Thompson, 2021). Given this context, the American Psychological Association (Swim et. al, 2009) report about climate change identified six main areas for psychology:
The available literature exploring how climate change affects the psychological wellbeing of the population is steadily increasing. The Handbook of Climate Psychology (2020) defines the term climate anxiety as a “heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system”, while Albrecht (2011) coined the term eco-anxiety to describe the chronic fear of environmental doom, ranging from mild stress to clinical disorders related to anxiety, stress, and mood disorders.
Current research has shown that climate anxiety and eco-anxiety are associated with a variety of mood and anxiety-related clinical disorders (Alderman et al., 2012; Berry 2009; Berry et al., 2008, 2010; Boscarino et al., 2014; Bourque & Wilox, 2014; Bryant et al., 2014; Carroll et. al, 2009; Clayton et al., 2014; Doherty & Clayton, 2011; Fritze et al., 2008; Simpson et al., 2011; Wilox et al., 2012, 2013, 2015):
For example, some studies have demonstrated that mental-health related hospital admissions and emergency department visits for psychological conditions such as affective disorders, anxiety, depression or schizophrenia increased with high temperatures (Basu et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2020), while heat waves have also been associated with an increased risk of suicide and self-harm (Liu et al., 2021; Thompson et al., 2018). In a similar way, persons living in areas affected by hurricanes have high levels of suicide and suicidal ideation, are affected by mood disorders, and can experience symptoms of PTSD (Bryant et al., 2014; Kessler et al., 2008; Lowe et al., 2013). Empirical investigations have also identified that exposure to floods is usually associated with symptoms of acute depression, anxiety, and amplifies the risk of suicide (Obradovich et al., 2018).
In general, the negative impact on the levels of stress and anxiety evoked by experiencing events associated with climate change such as storms, land loss or droughts and other extreme climate events is well-documented (Clayton et al., 2017; Manning & Clayton, 2018; Obradovich et al, 2018).
A growing number of studies describe the negative emotional consequences associated with the individuals’ perception of climate change, without being directly exposed to specific events (Berry & Peel, 2015; Helm et al., 2018; Reser et al., 2012). A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (2018) documented that 51% of the respondents considered climate change as “a somewhat or significant source of stress”. In a similar way, a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (Leiserowitz et al., 2018) revealed that 69% of Americans are at least somewhat worried about global warming, while 29% are very worried about it. According to data Google provided to nonprofit climate newsroom Grist, searches for “climate anxiety” rose 565% between October 2020 and October 2021, showing society' growing awareness of this topic.
Observing the irrevocable impact of climate change can lead us to ruminate about the future of ourselves, our children, and later generations. The gradual, constant, and irrevocable changes in climate change are associated with feelings of fear, anger and exhaustion (Moser, 2007). Some persons can also experience a feeling of guilt and responsibility about climate change, as they contemplate the consequences of their own behavior on future generations. Moser (2013) found that people are affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.
As natural disasters and abnormal climate events increase in frequency and are attributed to global climate change, the worry about such events has started to have a negative impact on individuals’ psychological well-being. Thus, the mental health of persons not directly affected by it are also impacted by the patterns of climate change.
According to mental health professionals, one of the main recommendations for confronting climate anxiety is to take action. The main goal is to take an active role and to answer the question “What can I do?”. Doing things that have personal relevance, be they small or large, can produce a positive impact on both the individual and the society.
A feeling of collective efficacy can also enhance resilience and encourage the adoption of a more active role. For example, informal support groups have been formed to connect people that are worried about climate change, such as the Good Grief Network or the ISeeChange community climate and weather platform. Kate Shapira also started a project on “Climate Anxiety Counseling”, where users can share their personal stories and fears.
Beyond those initiatives, some psychotherapists started to adopt specific therapeutic approaches such as enhanced self-efficacy, finding sources of meaning, or simply, reconnecting with nature (Andrews, 2017; Clayton et al., 2017; Doherty, 2015; Pols, 2018). Specifically, Virtual Reality (VR) technologies can offer a unique possibility to help users reconnect with natural landscapes, by allowing them to explore beautiful scenes that otherwise can be difficult to visit or that might disappear in the near future due to climate change. The possibility to visit, engage with, and to explore virtual natural environments can raise users’ interest and concern about climate change, facilitating the adoption of an active role in tackling climate change.
Relax VR helps people relax using Virtual Reality. It combines the exposure to natural VR scenes, guided meditations, essential oils, and binaural beats music to create a space for users to virtually escape, mindfully unwind and holistically reconnect with themselves.
In November 2021, Relax VR decided to join Stripe Climate and began giving 0.5% of its total revenue to help counteract climate change.
American Psychological Association (2018). Stress in America: Generation Z. Stress in America™ survey. Available at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf
Albrecht, G. (2011). Chronic environmental change: Emerging ‘psychoterratic’ syndromes. In I. Weissbecker, I. (Ed). Climate Change and Human Well-being (pp. 43–56). New York: Springer.
Alderman, K., Turner, L. R., & Tong, S. (2012). Floods and human health: A systematic review. Environment International, 47, 37–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2012.06.003
Andrews, E. (2017). Climate anxiety doesn't have to ruin your life. Here's how to manage it. Grist. Available at: https://grist.org/culture/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-deal-with-climate-change/
Basu, R., Gavin, L., Pearson, D., Ebisu, K., & Malig, B. (2017). Examining the association between apparent temperature and mental health-related emergency room visits in California. American Journal of Epidemiology, 187, 726-735. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwx295
Berry, H.L., Kelly, B.J., Hanigan, I.C., Coates, J.H., McMichael, A.J., Welsh, J.A., Kjellstrom, T. (2008). Rural mental health impacts of climate change. Commissioned report for the Garnaut Climate Change Review. Canberra: The Australian National University. Available at: https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/cchhl/index.cfm/main/detail?reference_id=242
Berry H. (2009). Pearl in the oyster: climate change as a mental health opportunity. Australasian Psychiatry, 17(6), 453–546. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10398560903045328
Berry, H.L., Bowen, K., & Kjellstrom, T. (2010): Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. International Journal of Public Health, 55, 123-132. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00038-009-0112-0
Berry, H.L., & Peel, D. (2015). Worrying about climate change: Is it responsible to promote public debate? BJPsych International, 12(2), 31-32. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1192/s2056474000000234
Boscarino, J., Hoffman, S., Adams, R., Figley, C., & Solhkhah, R. (2014). Mental health outcomes among vulnerable residents after Hurricane Sandy. American Journal of Disaster Medicine, 9, 107–120. https://doi.org/10.5055/ajdm.2014.0147
Bourque, F., & Wilox, A.C. (2014). Climate change: the next challenge for public mental health? International Review of Psychiatry, 26(4), 415–22. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/09540261.2014.925851
Bryant, R., Waters, E., Gibbs, L., Gallagher, H. C., Pattison, P., Lusher, D., . . . Forbes, D. (2014). Psychological outcomes following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 48, 634–643. DOI: https://doi.org/0.1177/0004867414534476
Carroll, B., Morbey, H., Balogh, R., & Araoz, G. (2009). Flooded homes, broken bonds, the meaning of home, psychological processes and their impact on psychological health in a disaster. Health & Place, 15, 540–547. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.08.009
Clayton, S., Manning, C., & Hodge, C. (2014). Beyond storms & droughts: the psychological impacts of climate change. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. Available at: https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/eA_Beyond_Storms_and_Droughts_Psych_Impacts_of_Climate_Change.pdf
Clayton, S., Manning, C.M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. Washington, D.C. Available at: http://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ea-apa-psych-report-web.pdf
Climate Psychology Alliance (2020). The Handbook of Climate Psychology. Available at: https://climatepsychologyalliance.org/handbook
Doherty, T.J. (2015). Mental Health Impacts. In Patz, J. & Levy, B.S. (Eds.), Climate Change and Public Health. Oxford University Press. New York. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/med/9780190202453.001.0001
Doherty, T.J., & Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4), 265-276. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023141
Fritze, J., Blashki, G. A., Burke S., & Wiseman, J. (2008). Hope, despair and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and well-being. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 2, 13. Available at: https://ijmhs.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1752-4458-2-13
Helm, S.V., Pollitt, A., Barnett, M.A., Curran, M.A., & Craig, Z.R. (2018). Differentiating environmental concern in the context of psychological adaption to climate change. Global Environmental Change, 48, 158-167. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2017.11.012
Kessler, R., Galea, S., Gruber, M., Sampson, N., Ursano, R., & Wessely, S. (2008). Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Molecular Psychiatry, 13, 374–384. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.mp.4002119
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2018). Climate Change in the American Mind: December 2018. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Available at: https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Climate-Change-American-Mind-December-2018.pdf
Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the anthropocene. Nature, 519, 171–180. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14258
Liu, J., Varghese, B.M., Hansen, A., Xiang, J., Zhang, Y., Dear, K., Gourley, M., Driscoll, T., Morgan, G., Capon, A., & Bi, P. (2021). Is there an association between hot weather and poor mental health outcomes? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Environment International, 153, 106533. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106533
Lowe, S. R., Manove, E. E., & Rhodes, J. E. (2013). Posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth among low-income mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(5), 877–889. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033252
Manning, C., & Clayton, S. (2018). Threats to Mental Health and Wellbeing associated with Climate Change. In Clayton, S. & Manning, C. (Eds): Psychology and climate change: Human perceptions, impacts, and responses. Elsevier, San Diego, CA. Available at: https://www.elsevier.com/books/psychology-and-climate-change/clayton/978-0-12-813130-5
Moser, S. C. (2007). More bad news: The risk of neglecting emotional responses to climate change information. In Moser, S.C. & Dilling, L. (Eds.), Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (pp. 64-80). 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Books Online. Available at: https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/4183
Moser, S. C. (2013). Navigating the political and emotional terrain of adaptation: Community engagement when climate change comes home. In Moser, S.C. & Boykoff, M.T. (Eds.), Successful Adaptation to Climate Change: Linking Science and Policy in a Rapidly Changing World (pp. 289–305). New York, NY: Routledge. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Successful-Adaptation-to-Climate-Change-Linking-Science-and-Policy-in-a/Moser-Boykoff/p/book/9780415525008
Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Paulus, M.P., & Rahwan, I. (2018). Empirical evidence of mental health risks posed by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(43), 10953-10958. Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/43/10953.full.pdf
Palinkas, L.A. & Wong, M. (2020). Global climate change and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology, 32, 12-16. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.06.023
Pols, M. (2018). Climate anxiety: A strain of emotional stress is on the rise. Available at: https://www.pressherald.com/2018/11/04/climate-change-brings-climate-anxiety/
Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L., Glendon, A.I., Ellul, M.C., & Callaghan, R. (2012). Public Risk Perceptions, Understandings, and Responses to Climate Change and Natural Disasters in Australia, 2010 and 2011. National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. Available at: https://www.unisdr.org/preventionweb/files/30470_finalreportreserpublicriskperceptio.pdf
Ruddiman, W. F. (2013). The anthropocene. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 41, 45–68. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-earth-050212-123944
Simpson, D. M., Weissbecker, I., & Sephton, S. E. (2011). Extreme weather-related events: Implications for mental health and well-being. In Weissbecker, I. (Ed.), Climate change and human well-being: Global challenges and opportunities (pp. 57–78). New York, NY: Springer. Available at: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4419-9742-5
Swim, J.,S. Clayton, S., Doherty, T., Gifford, R., Howard, G., Reser, J., Stern, P., & Weber, E. (2009). Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-Faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. Available at: http://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx
Thompson, R., Hornigold, R., Page, L., & Waite, T. (2018). Associations between high ambient temperatures and heat waves with mental health outcomes: a systematic review. Public Health, 161, 171-191. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2018.06.008
Thompson, H.E. (2021). Climate “Psychopathology”. The Intersection of Mental and Physical Health in the Climate Emergency. European Psychologist, 26(3), 195–203. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000433
Willox, A.C., Harper, S.L., Ford, J.D., Landman, K., Houle, K., & Edge, V.L. (2012). “From this place and of this place:” climate change, sense of place, and health in Nunatsiavut, Canada. Social Science and Medicine, 75(3), 538–547. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.03.043
Willox, A.C., Harper, S.L., Edge, V.L., Landman, K., Houle, K, & Ford, J.D. (2013). The land enriches the soul: on climatic and environmental change, affect, and emotional health and well-being in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada. Emotion, Space and Society, 6. 14-24. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2011.08.005
Willox, A.C., Stephenson, E., Allen, J., Bourque, F., Drossos, A., Elgaroy, S., Kral, M.J., Mauro, I., Moses, J., Pearce, T., MacDonald, J.P. (2015) Examining relationships between climate change and mental health in the Circumpolar North. Regional Environmental Change. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0630-z
Zhang, S., Yang, Y., Xie, X., Li, H., Han, R., Hou, J., Sun, J., Qian, Z.M., Wu, S., Huang, C., Howard, S.W., Tian, F., Deng, W., & Lin, H. (2020). The effect of temperature on cause-specific mental disorders in three subtropical cities: a case-crossover study in China. Environment International, 143:10593. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.105938