A couple looks at the Bay Bridge as wildfire smoke turns the sky orange, September 2020. (Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash)
By Leah Harris
It is widely known that the extreme heat being driven by climate change is impacting mental health and well-being in a variety of ways. Climate change is understood to worsen depression, anxiety, and can lead to a higher incidence of extreme states/psychosis. Research has shown an increase in distress, suicidality, aggression against others, and visits to emergency departments as the temperature rises. The most vulnerable and marginalized communities including unhoused neighbors, people living in environments long-impacted by racist urban planning policies, as well as those who must work outdoors, are at greatest risk.
In addition, extreme heat can increase health risks of people taking medications for mental health conditions, in the form of thermoregulation challenges, or the body’s ability to regulate temperature. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants may cause increased sweating, which can hasten dehydration. Neuroleptic, or antipsychotic medications can lead to hyperthermia, or increased body heat, at the same time that they decrease sensations of thirst. It’s vital to educate ourselves and others on how these medications act on the body during periods of extreme heat, and steps to take to recognize and prevent heatstroke and other dangers.
Various individual coping strategies have been recommended to counter the negative mental health impacts of climate change, such as meditation and mindfulness. But the scale of the problem is such that individualistic suggestions are unlikely to make much of a mental health difference in the long term. “Coping skills are always valuable, but what we ultimately need are more adaptive and resilient systems that help shield everyone from the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of extreme heat,” writes Rebecca Ruiz in Mashable.
Here are a few collectively-minded strategies for working with the mental health impacts of climate change and focusing on actions that are within your control.
Resources for further exploration:
Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.
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