Author: Laura Kent

Climate change, extreme heat and the potential impacts on our mental health and wellbeing

Source(s): Institution of Mechanical Engineers

The IMechE recent published a report into how industry will need to adapt to rising temperatures caused by climate change. IMechE Public Affairs and Policy Advisor Dr Laura Kent examines the link between climate change, extreme heat and mental health.

In their Sixth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that, with a very high confidence, climate change has adversely impacted mental health and they expect these challenges to only worsen as associated weather extremes intensify . Unfortunately, the gap between mental health needs and available services is already large, and without urgent action this gap is set to grow as climates worldwide continue to change. The report highlighted that the global capacity of health systems to respond to climate change was weak, particularly in terms of mental health support. Therefore, it is an imperative that we fully understand the mental health impacts of climate change and urgently develop solutions and policies to protect those impacted.

 It is not yet clear exactly why warmer climates impact our mental health. A study published in 2021 showed that in Bern, Switzerland, hospitalisation risk for mental health disorders rose by 4% for every 10°C increase in mean daily temperature.  Another study found that, in the USA, a 1.5°C increase in the global mean temperature would be associated with an estimated 1,601 additional injury deaths (intentional and unintentional), with 84% of these occurring in males. 

There are concerns that higher temperatures can lead to people having greater anger levels which in turn leads to greater conflict and violence, putting a strain on relationships and resulting in intimate partner violence. Heat can also impact our sleep, which can additionally impact our mental health. 

 Increased ambient temperatures, heatwaves and other climate extremes can also lead to a loss of earnings, productivity and work opportunities, especially amongst those who work in the ‘gig economy’ or in outdoor settings. In turn this can detrimentally affect the mental health of individuals through increased unemployment and homelessness. Extreme weather events in general can lead to property or damage losses, an increased feeling of a lack of control, and climate induced migration, all of which effect mental health and wellbeing.  

Physical exercise is known to provide mental health benefits and reduce the risk of other diseases.However, increases in seasonal ambient temperatures and the increased occurrence, intensity and length of extreme heat events can reduce the frequency, duration and desire to participate in physical activity.  

Medications taken for mental health illnesses can also disrupt the body’s ability to regulate temperature, which can be deadly when combined with extreme heat. For example, during the 2021 heat dome event in British Columbia, mental illnesses were among the conditions that left people the most susceptible to death, and those with schizophrenia had three-time higher odds of dying . 

In addition to the direct physical and mental health impacts of increased temperatures, there are deep long-term psychological reactions to the helplessness, fear and grief experienced by those witnessing the impact of climate change. Solastalgia, for example, describes the feeling of distress caused by the lived experience of environmental change close to a person’s home, such as through climate change and extreme weather events. This can be challenging to articulate, and the emotional impact of the breakdown in living environments is often overlooked. Solastalgia brings a profound and prolonged disruption to sense of identity, belonging and security, accompanied by a deep sense of helplessness that appears completely out of control.   

Another related psychological challenge is a rise in ‘eco-anxiety’, which is a response to the current and anticipated impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. This phenomenon can lead to feelings of loss, fear and helplessness, alongside a sense of being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, and is becoming increasingly evident, particularly amongst the younger generation. Physical, engineered adaptation of communities to future heat impacts will be vital and access to sustainable, net-zero cooling, for example, will feature significantly, including appropriate use of nature-based solutions such as green spaces and access to bodies of clean water, both of which will also have a positive impact on mental health and broader well-being.  

There will be a limit to what can be achieved through engineering. Urgent attention must be given to the incorporation of climate change considerations into national and international policies and programmes for mental health to ensure populations worldwide are more resilient to emerging extreme weather-related risks. This should be done in collaboration with groups who are most likely to be affected, particularly those that are disadvantaged and marginalised. Governments need to address the funding gaps for both mental health and the broader health impacts of climate change.  

The warmer temperatures we have experienced in recent years are likely to be perceived as relatively cool in the decades ahead. It is therefore essential that the impacts of climate change induced heat are fully understood, and increased risks accounted for in national and local planning. A combination of appropriate engineered adaptation solutions and improved infrastructure resilience, with public health interventions to target those most vulnerable will be vital and should now be a priority for public health agencies across the globe.   

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