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A Connection Between Climate Change And Mental Health — Experts Say It's Time To Take Notice

A recent report from the American Psychiatric Association urges people to “participate in policy and advocacy to combat climate change.”

And that’s just one of the medical groups writing about the connection between adverse mental health effects and global disasters related to changing climate.

Psychologist Judith Kuriansky recently moderated a panel on climate change and mental health for the American Public Health Association. She’s traveled nationally and internationally to disaster sites to treat patients and teach local health professionals.

Kuriansky ( @DrJudyK), a professor of psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University and representative to the United Nations for the International Association of Applied Psychology, joins  Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about her work, and about mental health and the warming planet.

“Indeed people are really paying attention to climate change because all over this country of America and all over the world people are suffering from these sudden disasters from nature.”

Interview Highlights

On seeing the effects of natural disasters on mental health

“I have been all over the world and all over this country after floods and earthquakes. We had Superstorm Sandy here a couple of years ago where so much was washed away, so many homes. And there was Katrina many years ago. Then Hurricane Matthew that hit parts of the South, and so many floods in the Midwest. And what I see is people are massively depressed. Sometimes even drastically — people wanting to kill themselves and in some cases doing that. They’re depressed not just about the fact that their homes are washed away, which is disastrous enough, but the sadness and the loss of loved ones. And then their homes, their livelihoods. Children really suffer a great deal. They don’t want to go to school when it rains because they’re so afraid that there will be some kind of flood and their parents won’t be there when they get home.”

On children that don’t want to take baths because of the trauma

“That is a very powerful example. And, in fact, one woman who when I was doing a workshop down in Louisiana after Hurricane Matthew, and she said her little girl was screaming at the top of her lungs whenever she would run the water in the bath. She talked to me, and I said, ‘Well, you know, does this have to do with like this flash flood sound of water that panics her?’ The light bulb went off, and she said, ‘You know what? That could be it.’ ”

On depression

“Aches and pains in your body are related, often, to the anxieties and fears. So, you have to pay attention to that. If you can’t sleep and you can’t eat, these are some of the physical things. But, so many people — for example, after a storm, when I saw so many people, they were confused. This is cognitive disorder. Your brain can’t really focus clearly.  You can’t concentrate on something, you don’t want to make decisions or you make brash decisions, or you’re impulsive. And then, emotionally, you could be lethargic or angry. I mean, what I see a great deal is that parents snap at their kids. They get just irritable.”

On a 30 percent increase in suicides in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

“This is horrific, but it’s also real. As a psychologist, I know the statistics. And the closer you are to the disaster, and the more that you have lost, by the way, those two criteria, the higher your level of depression would be. I’m not surprised, sadly, about the degree of suicide in Puerto Rico that’s being reported. It’s been reported in farmlands. I’m extremely distressed about the high rate of suicide of farmers. We have a lot of farmers in our country. And there are farmers in other places around the world. In Guyana and in India, by the way, farmers are committing suicide in high numbers, when we have droughts and floods and all the things that affect them.”

On preparing for disaster and the emotional trauma that follows

“From a practical point of view, there’s lots of advice people probably have heard about how they should prepare their emergency kit, they should have phone numbers available, they should know where they need to go to higher ground if it’s a water-related issue, etc. So, all of that is practical things that you do. But in terms of emotional things, I think you need to be prepared to know that if something happens, you are going to have these experiences emotionally that we’ve talked about. That it’s likely you could become depressed, you could become anxious, you’d become more aggressive, you could start arguments with your family members. And another thing that happens is, it’s very, very common, is that people question God. ‘Where is God to protect me?’ ”

Studies And Articles On Mental Health And Disasters Related To Climate Change

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dr. Judith Kuriansky with children and parents in June 2018 after an earthquake in Kermanshah, Iran. (Courtesy Dr. Judith Kuriansky)
Dr. Judith Kuriansky with children and parents in June 2018 after an earthquake in Kermanshah, Iran. (Courtesy Dr. Judith Kuriansky)

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