How is mental health relative between cultures

Climate Change and Mental Health: A Relatively New Stressor

Climate change and the associated dangers trigger activism as well as negative and destructive emotions and attitudes in many people. Dealing with it can be classified as psychological stress. Scientific knowledge is still rare.

Photo: picture alliance / Florencia Martin / dpa

The global climate fluctuated repeatedly between warm and cold periods in the course of the earth's history. The reasons for this included volcanism and erosion, which led to changing concentrations and compositions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In addition, there were many other natural factors such as solar radiation and the shifting of the continents that influenced the climate on earth.

At the end of the 19th century it was first established that the climate is not only subject to natural, but also artificial, man-made influences. It is now assumed that the current climate change is primarily caused by humans. Since the industrial revolution, so many greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide, CO2) and released into the earth's atmosphere that the natural greenhouse effect is intensified and the global climate warms.

Global warming

A few years ago hardly any of this was noticed, but today, some clear changes caused by climate change can be observed around the world. These mainly include the increase in average temperatures and the warming of the world's oceans. As a result of such changes, various phenomena such as cyclones, heat waves, forest fires, water scarcity, heavy rain, floods, drought, crop failures and the rise in sea levels occur more frequently. According to climate experts, persistent or increasing global warming could be associated with considerable physical and psychological impairments for humans.

Although scientific knowledge about the psychological consequences of climate change is still scarce, it is not difficult to observe that climate change and the associated dangers trigger activism in many people and hardly any positive emotions such as hope. Instead, negative and destructive emotions and attitudes predominate, such as:

  • Powerlessness and helplessness: They develop when one person thinks that they do not have sufficient resources to effectively protect the climate and others with more influence do not act efficiently and in a coordinated manner.
  • Despair and hopelessness: They arise from the assumption that there will be no salvation for the climate and thus for humanity anyway.
  • Loss of control: It develops from the idea of ​​not having any influence on climate change.
  • Fears and panic: They can be triggered by the idea that humanity and all life on earth will be wiped out by climate change or that your own life or that of your children and grandchildren will be threatened and severely restricted (this is sometimes called "climate fear " designated).
  • Loss and grief: They occur when, for example, a piece of nature or home is lost (terms such as "ecological grief" and "sostalgia" were coined for this).
  • Anger, annoyance and frustration: they can arise when the impression prevails that not enough is being done to protect the climate, even though the problem is becoming more and more urgent.
  • Feelings of injustice and disadvantage: They develop when it is established that some people, companies or nations and possibly yourself are doing something to protect the climate and others are not, whereby the latter are therefore not prosecuted.
  • Overload: It occurs when a person feels overloaded by the many demands, information and rules of conduct regarding climate protection.
  • Aggressions: They are often associated with ideologically and quasi-religiously charged attitudes with regard to climate protection and occur, for example, when people, companies or states observe harmful actions (a term that is often read in this context is “climate sinner”).
  • Shame and feelings of guilt: They are triggered by the discrepancy between knowledge of climate-damaging behavior and actual behavior (the term “flight shame”, for example, is often used here).
  • Reactance: It can develop in the face of constant admonitions and requests to behave in a climate-conscious manner. It goes hand in hand with the attitude that one feels neither responsible nor responsible to do something about climate change.
  • Weariness: It can arise as a reaction to the constant media coverage of global warming and the associated immanent need to deal with the topic.
  • Ignorance and denial: They are characterized by a conscious isolation from information about climate change, the suppression of the problem, the refusal to deal with it, as well as the claim that one does not notice anything about climate change or that it does not even exist.
  • Disenchantment with the future: It is related to hopelessness and negates a positive future for oneself and humanity.

Depending on the disposition

In view of these negative and stressful emotions, thoughts and attitudes, climate change and how to deal with it can be classified as psychological stress - not for everyone, but for many people. According to the psychologist Dr. phil. Maxie Bunz and the human ecologist Dr. Hans-Guido Mücke from the Federal Environment Agency in Berlin, among other things, "depends on the individual (pre-) disposition, resilience, behavior and adaptation".

As a stress factor, the effects of climate change on psychological well-being have some similarities with other stressors such as the loss of a relative or a job, a serious illness, a separation or divorce, accidents, experiences of violence or work-related stress.

No therapeutic approaches

But there are also differences: While conventional stressors such as divorce or a serious illness are viewed as individual problems or problems of certain groups, climate change affects all of humanity. Phases of grief or heavy occupational stress are considered to be overcome or therapeutically treatable, while climate change is seen as hardly reversible and there are still no therapeutic approaches for those who suffer from it. Several generations will be concerned with climate change and its end is not in sight, while conventional stressors often subside or disappear within months or a few years. An experience of divorce or violence can also be mastered alone and on one's own, while slowing down or ending global warming can only be achieved together.

The stressor of climate change can be both continuous and selective. The continuous exposure results mainly from the constant presence of the topic in the media. Not a day goes by on which climate change is not discussed and disseminated in the headlines or reports, in political roundtables or in campaigns on television, radio, the Internet and in the print media. The threat posed by climate change is therefore always latent, with no escape or any change in it in the foreseeable future.

Punctual burdens arise, for example, in view of reports that some influential nations in particular are subordinating climate protection unhindered to political and economic interests. So are the efforts of many countries with very high CO2-Emissions such as Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia, India or China are nowhere near sufficient, although they neither lack influence nor lack of financial means. In addition, climate protection seems to be becoming increasingly subordinate for some nations, which was shown, for example, in 2019 when the USA under US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro the massive, ever increasing, illegal deforestation and defended slash and burn in the Brazilian rainforest as "part of the culture". People who live on the other side of the earth, for example, might be indifferent to this if the USA and Brazil did not have such a great influence on the global ecosystem and thus on the climate - hence their national political and economic decisions resolve climate-related stress in people all over the world.

Heat waves make you aggressive

It is well known that people who are exposed to permanent or severe acute stress can become mentally ill or traumatized. However, it is still too early to make detailed statements about how the stressor climate change will affect mental health in the long term. Nevertheless, there are various studies that suggest similar consequences as those caused by conventional stress factors and give an idea of ​​what could still happen to mankind in the event of increasing global warming. In countries such as the USA, Australia and Africa, for example, it has been proven that heat waves promote aggression, make people contentious and increase the crime rate. And after natural disasters caused by tidal waves, hurricanes or persistent drought, many victims suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, addictions, fears and thoughts of suicide. Mentally ill people are more likely and more severely affected than those who are not, because according to the German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology (DGPPN), they are "particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change".

Should global warming continue, battles over scarce resources, large waves of climate refugees, and epidemics of infectious diseases and mental illnesses could become a reality in the near future.

Such scenarios require extensive preparation of health systems around the world. For example, flexible emergency services, emergency supply stations and specialized treatment teams are required in the disaster areas that are already or will be affected in the future - some countries such as the USA or Australia have already become active in this regard and can serve as role models for other countries. The population should also be trained to take protective measures. In addition, psychotherapeutic care should be prepared for the increase in mental illnesses caused by the effects of climate change. With these and many other measures, the extent and severity of the natural disasters could be better assessed, timely evacuations could take place, the number of victims could be kept relatively low and the victims could be treated medically and psychotherapeutically more quickly.

In the context of psychotherapy, too, it will become increasingly necessary to see mental disorders such as anxiety, depression or PTSD (also) in connection with climate change. The topic of climate change should not be excluded, but patients should be able to express their stressful thoughts and feelings about it. The specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy Dr. med. Michael Schonnebeck from the day clinic at Hansaring in Cologne advises a psycho-educational exchange between therapists and patients. He writes: "Such an exchange requires time, attention, reciprocity and also consists of communicating feelings, emotions and moods."

Suitable psychotherapeutic methods for treating mental abnormalities that are directly or indirectly related to climate change are, for example, decastrophizing, teaching coping and stress management, methods of coping with grief or resilience training. They help patients to regulate destructive emotions in relation to climate change, to strengthen their self-efficiency and their optimism, to maintain a healthy inner distance to the topic of climate change and to find a constructive personal approach to it. Since climate change is a relatively new stressor that has some special features compared to other stressors (see above), it will also be necessary to adapt proven approaches and procedures accordingly and to develop new ones. Marion Sonnenmoser

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German Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology e.V. (DGPPN): Statement on the effects of climate change on mental health. Berlin: Press Office DGPPN e.V., November 27, 2019.
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