“You are a product of your environment,” wrote W. Clement Stone, a self-help author. His words have gained a new meaning in recent years as we come to understand the link between climate change and a person’s mental health.
But what exactly is this link? You might ask.
We shall explore the impacts of climate change on one’s mental well-being and how we can help those in need.
What is Eco-Anxiety?
There are direct links between climate change and the climate crisis and health. – Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Director and Professor at the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health
The American Psychology Association (APA) describes eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations”.
Among its symptoms are slight cases of anxiety, stress, sleep disturbances, and nervousness. More extreme cases may cause a sensation of suffocation or even depression. Among the latter group, it is quite common for people to express a strong sense of guilt about the situation of the planet, which can be aggravated, among those who have children, when thinking about their future.
That said, eco-anxiety does not affect people equally.
Indeed, Professor Susan Clayton, Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster, notes in this podcast that more young people have reported being stressed by climate change than their elders.
There have been a number of national surveys that ask people “are you worried about climate change?” About 70% of Americans in the most recent surveys I’ve seen say they are worried. And about 50% said they would be personally harmed by climate change. – Professor Susan Clayton, Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster
Supporting Prof Clayton’s statement is a 2020 study from England which found that the levels of eco-anxiety were noticeably higher among the young than the general populace.
The survey, conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in early September 2020, asked its members working in the National Health Service (NHS): “In the last year have you seen patients who are distressed about environmental and ecological issues?”
Among child and adolescent psychiatrists in England, 57.3% (47 of the 82 who replied) answered in the affirmative. This was almost 10 points higher than among respondents dealing with all age groups, at 47.9% (264 of 551). Although the sample size was small, practitioners in the field have said the findings were in line with their experience.
In recent years, a whole new set of issues has emerged. These are all things young people have to contend with, things that affect their futures. – Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists
As the younger generations (especially members of Generation Z) have a greater affinity towards social media than their elders, it should be no surprise that they would be exposed to more climate ‘bad news’, feeling betrayed by their governments’ inaction and worried about their potential futures in a time of great upheavals.
Gen Z is feeling it the most. Being glued to Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and all the rest, it’s just way more in their face. Millennials’ mental health is very much impacted too. But we see a big decrease [in climate anxiety] as we go up to Gen X and boomers and so on. – Britt Wray, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Centre for Innovation in Global Health
In a virtual press conference on mental health conducted by The Generation Mental Health, Dr Fiona Charles, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, notes that worsening climatic events (such as the Australian bush fires of December 2019) will wear down a community’s mental resilience, making them more vulnerable to mental afflictions such as Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and adjustment disorder (AD).
Eco-Anxiety In Malaysia
Malaysia is no exception when it comes to the issue of eco-anxiety.
Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Director and Professor at the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, states that one of the ways climate change can impact public health (in this case, mental health) is through perpetuating natural disasters such as droughts and floods.
Floods are a familiar problem for us Malaysians. Constant heavy downpours combined with inadequate or blocked drainage have led to more than a dozen flash floods over the years. Between our homes becoming inundated and getting trapped in the middle of a flooded road, it is unsurprising that many of us continue to remain anxious about future flood events, fearing that the next one will be even worse than the last. And given the current state of climate change, it very well could be.
Living in KL is not relevant anymore. It floods after rain, I am wasting my life in traffic. Living costs [are] high. It is causing so much stress that it may turn into burnout. We want a long life. – Syamil Yusri, Twitter user
The December 2021 floods have proven themselves to be among the worst floods our nation has endured, wreaking havoc in eight states including Selangor and several districts in Pahang and Negri Sembilan, displacing thousands of people from their homes, damaging properties and killing at least 48 people.
The first experience of having to stay at the [flood relief centres] in the early stages of the floods, which were disorganised, was also traumatic for victims who were uncomfortable with the new environment. Post-floods were also sad episodes for the victims as they witnessed damage to their homes and offices, causing some to face extreme fatigue after cleaning up their premises. – Dr Shawaludin Husin, occupational health doctor and President Of the Malaysian Society for Occupational Safety and Health (MSOSH)
While some people have proven themselves more resilient to the losses they’ve endured, others who are not even ready for a minor disruption in their daily routines will experience far greater strength or even frustration.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is that the trauma from the losses and sudden displacements will still weigh heavily on people’s minds. Those who survived and are rebuilding their lives will continue to fear for the next flood. And if this fear is allowed to fester, it will completely eat away at their mental fortitude.
What’s worrying is the psychological impact of the devastating floods could trigger larger conflicts, if not properly managed. These include husband-wife fighting, abandoned children and stress at [the] workplace for either employees or employers. – Dr Shawaludin Husin, occupational health doctor and President Of the Malaysian Society for Occupational Safety and Health (MSOSH)
Stranded in the middle of a flood with only meagre tents as your shelter from the rain, desperately hoping for food, blankets and other precious supplies to arrive soon, it is no wonder that many OA communities remain on edge long after the flooding subsides, the trauma still lingering on their minds as they steel themselves for the next disaster.
All the villagers are deeply traumatised by the recent floods. There are more than 250 people living here and we are in fear every time it rains. – Aba Chahim, Kampung Orang Asli Paya Lebar committee chairman
Keeping our Eco-Anxieties Down
As we become more aware of the detrimental effects climate change has on our mental health, the question remains: What can we do to help?
Throw out whatever old knowledge and old thinking they have… take the issue of planetary health very, very, very, very seriously. – Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Director and Professor at the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health
Like many other anxiety problems, eco-anxiety can be minimised through simple means such as looking for the positive side in any circumstance, working on emotional regulation in the face of one’s own impulses, and developing resilience in order to face adversities.
Another way to deal with eco-anxiety is by doing our part in caring for our planet; promoting a more sustainable lifestyle for ourselves and others will put our minds at ease, knowing that at the very least, we are making genuine efforts to combat the threat of climate change.
Ultimately, we must challenge the stigma of mental illness and realise that it can inflict just as much harm as any physical injury. Post-Katrina communities are already providing community-based mental health care, with an ongoing project in New Orleans’s Ninth’s Ward (one of the hardest hit by the hurricane) providing psychological first aid and community capacity building in how to identify and address the psychosocial responses.
The Malaysian Government should consider a similar program to help flood victims cope with the stress of being caught in a sudden flood and rebuilding afterwards. Only then will we be better able to handle the problems of eco-anxiety on a larger scale.
There are lessons to be learned from such a catastrophe. Flood victims need comforting words and support from the community, family members and close friends. – Dr Shawaludin Husin, occupational health doctor and President Of the Malaysian Society for Occupational Safety and Health (MSOSH)
Explore our sources:
- S. Nolan (2022) Exclusive: Former Malaysia advisor calls for public health to tackle climate change. GovInsider. Link.
- Eco-anxiety: the psychological aftermath of the climate crisis (n.d.) Iberdrola. Link.
- J. Watts and D. Campbell (2020) Half of child psychiatrists surveyed say patients have environmental anxiety. The Guardian. Link.
- R. Schiffman (2022) For Gen Z, Climate Change Is a Heavy Emotional Burden. Yale Environment 360. Link.
- Climate Change & Mental Health Part 1 (2020) Klima Action Malaysia. Link.
- M. Kaur (2022) Social media users rage over another flash flood in KL. Sinar Daily. Link.
- Bernama (2021) Experts: Flood victims could be traumatised, in urgent need of mental, emotional support. Malaymail. Link.
- R.R. Ganesan (2021) Flood-hit Orang Asli in urgent need of food. FMT. Link.
- F. Zolkepli (2021) Floods: Orang Asli villagers on edge every time it rains. The Star. Link.