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Climate change contributes to poorer mental health: study


Concerns and anxiety over climate change are increasingly becoming mental health issues that affect people's everyday lives, a theory researchers say is supported by a new study showing the impact of record-breaking heatwaves in B.C. last summer.

Devastating heatwave conditions across the Pacific Northwest last summer increased anxiety amongst the residents of British Columbia, according to the study published in the Journal of Climate Change and Health.

The study revealed that the residents in the westernmost province were more anxious about climate change after the heat wave than they were before it.

“Climate anxiety has increasingly been on the radar of therapists, who had patients reporting about the environmental concerns,” Dr. Kiffer Card, co-author of the study and a social epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, told in a phone interview. He said climate anxiety can disrupt someone’s mental health by interfering with their everyday life.

Between June 25 and July 1, 2021, British Columbia experienced a heat dome, a high-pressure weather system that traps heat, with record-high temperatures reaching up to 49.6°C in the province. At the time, an international team of climate scientists disclosed that the magnitude of the B.C. heat dome was made 150 times more likely and was impossible without human-caused climate change.


Climate anxiety is slowly drawing the attention of researchers and mental health experts. Card, who is also the director of the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance, said the heat dome happened right after they closed the first survey in early June, and so they grabbed the opportunity to monitor how the responses had changed after the heat dome event.

“We certainly heard anecdotally that it did. And so we had a strong hypothesis to see increases in climate anxiety,” he said.

More participants were worried about climate change post-heat dome

The results from the survey showed that the heat dome event increased climate anxiety— a form of psychological distress related to the climate crisis.

The survey results revealed that there had been a 13 per cent increase in average levels of anxiety after the heat wave.

The post-heat dome results revealed that two-thirds of the surveyed participants (close to 60 per cent) were either “somewhat” or “much more” worried about climate change after the heat dome and subsequent fires across the province. Respondents who perceived their environment to be at risk due to climate change nearly doubled after the event, increasing from about 17 per cent before the heat dome event to nearly 30 per cent after.

Similarly, there were more respondents concerned about the climate change impact on the industry they worked in after the heat dome event and believed their homes would be more vulnerable to climate-related disasters such as floods, forest fires, and drought after the heat dome event.

Surveys were rolled out before and after the heat dome to get real-time data

Even though there have been prior studies linking climate change to the growing sense of fear, sadness, and existential dread, the study is the first to use a “natural experiment” to describe the impact of climate-induced extreme heat on mental health and anxiety levels among the general public in BC.

The study is also the first to incorporate a validated climate change anxiety measurement to quantify the impacts of extreme heat on mental health in real-time data at two different time periods.

Surveys were rolled out in two phases—one before the devastating heat wave and one after.

Both waves of surveys—before and after the heat wave, included more than 400 respondents in each wave.

The first wave of data collection ended four days before the start of the heat dome, and the second wave of data collection commenced only two weeks after the heat dome ended.

More policies are needed to address climate change anxiety

The study shows pressing concern around growing climate anxiety that is fuelled by extreme weather conditions. The results indicate that mental health indicators around climate change need to be incorporated into decision-making policies across Canada.

Card said while the study is meant to capture the impact of climate anxiety on people, it also aims to help understand the considerable threats climate issues can have on communities and the potential impacts on human infrastructure and human capital.

He said, for example, if people are living in fear in rural areas because of increasing environmental threats such as forest fires, then it could result in population declines or people wanting to have fewer children. This in turn would significantly reshape the rural communities of B.C.

Card said that they want to scale up the current survey to more provinces and have currently applied for federal funding for similar research across Canada. “We hope to create a national monitoring framework to understand the impacts of climate change on mental health.”

“A lot of the attitude around climate change is that we'll wait until those effects are happening. But I think studies like these tell us as those things are happening now and we are seeing real effects on real people's lives today and therefore, the time to do the research was yesterday,” said Card. Top Stories

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