Covering climate change's effects on our mental health

bySherry Ricchiardi
Dec 18, 2019 in Specialized Topics
Sadness

The United Nations’ climate crisis report did not mince words: Without “unprecedented action,” catastrophic conditions could arrive by 2030. NBC News turned to a Salt Lake City mother of three teenagers to humanize the story. 

October U.N. report finding that the world would need to take “unprecedented” action by 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

“The emotional reaction of my kids [to the report] was severe. There was a lot of crying. They told me, ‘We know what’s coming, and it’s going to be really rough,’” Amy Jordan told NBC. She began searching for ways to help them cope with what experts call “climate grief.”

The term, along with others such as “eco-anxiety,” worry over climate change, and “eco-paralysis,” the feeling that you can’t do anything to fix it, has crept into the  conversation to describe the emotional impact of climate change on the world’s citizens.

According to the U.N., climate change disasters are occurring at the rate of one a week — from wildfires in Northern California, to droughts, cyclones and floods in India and Mozambique. 

These feelings are even more prevalent for people experiencing crises as a result of climate change firsthand. For example, Greenland residents experienced “ecological grief” as their traditional way of life melted away. A study on the effects of the ecological changes on the human psyche compared emotions regarding the destruction of the environment to the loss of a loved one. Those feelings might include deep sadness, anger, despair and helplessness about the future. Depression and anxiety are common side effects.

Despite clear indications of mental health impact, the media have been slow to highlight this in their reporting. “This is an under-reported story that deserves greater attention,” said Bara Vaida, infectious disease expert for the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). “This is about more than weather. It is about the changing nature of the environment that humans live in.”

Vaida led a panel on the topic at AHCJ’s May conference to raise journalists’ awareness about the climate crisis, and its impact on mental health.

Following is a sampling of resources on the emotional toll of climate change. They provide links to a network of sources, topical stories and cutting-edge research.

Lawrence A. Palinkas, co-author of the article, “Global Climate Change and Mental Health” and professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California, said “mental health challenges and impact are “perhaps the most overlooked consequence of climate changes.”

Awareness, he says, is the crucial first step.

Asked what role he would like to see the media play, Palinkas offered the following suggestions:

  • Deliver a consistent message that the earth’s climate is changing and those changes are impacting our lives right now.
  • Minimize apocalyptic messages that tend to promote eco-anxiety and eco-paralysis.
  • Focus on the present. People tend to discount future outcomes. How are wildfires, floods and rising sea level impacting lives today?  What is the prognosis for going forward?
  • Personalize the impacts of climate change with powerful storytelling that answers the questions for readers: “Why should I care?”
  • Explain how action makes a difference, and highlight actions taken by individuals, corporations and local governments.
  • Publicize examples or models of positive behavior, as well as stories of people engaged in positive steps toward mitigation and adaptation.
  • Publicize the availability of help for those who are feeling eco-anxiety, eco-paralysis, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Additional reading

When beginning to research and include the effects of climate change in your reporting, it’s important to have the resources to back up your claims. Below is a list of sources for more information on the impact of climate change on mental health, and stories that incorporate the mental health angle. This list can serve as a resource, as well as an inspiration, for journalists hoping to expand their reporting.

Resources

  • In its climate change assessment, the U.S. Global Change Research Program listed clinical disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidal thoughts as byproducts of environmental changes. Grief, sense of loss, strains on social relationships and substance abuse were also identified as side effects of climate crisis.Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global environment provides latest research, fact sheets and visuals on climate crisis, including a section on mental health. 

  • Above all, focus on better coverage of the climate crisis at all levels, which will help support the mental health of your readers. Resources include an October 2019 Nieman Report that provides tips to improve climate crisis reporting, as well as several IJNet articles.

  • Climate Tracker publishes tips and guidelines in 10 languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Swahili. Content is aimed at young journalists, but has overall appeal to anyone covering climate crisis.

Examples

  • An August 2019 story in The Guardian examines a community ravaged by the 2017 wildfires in California, and how its members are recovering from the event. The writer spends time unpacking the citizens’ mental health challenges, citing an American Psychological Association report, “Survivors of [climate change] disasters are experiencing dramatic increases in depression PTSD, anxiety disorders and violent behavior.” The story discusses coping mechanisms and mental health effects.

  • The Australian Medical Association proclaimed climate change a health emergency as unprecedented weather events were having “devastating impacts on mental health,” especially in rural areas hard-hit by drought, fire and floods. This is explored in-depth in an article written for The Conversation, as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative.


Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Toimetaja tõlkebüroo.