Climate change: More depression, more suicides – this is how global warming affects the psyche

Anyone who comes to Margit Wrobel's practice has psychological problems.

Climate change: More depression, more suicides – this is how global warming affects the psyche

Anyone who comes to Margit Wrobel's practice has psychological problems. Depression is on the agenda for the psychiatry and neurology doctor, and the reasons for this vary. However, Wrobel hears one catchphrase more and more frequently during conversations in her practice in Vienna: global warming is an additional concern for many people. “About 70 percent of my patients bring up climate change in the sessions,” estimates the psychiatrist in an interview with Stern.

Young patients often complained about a lack of future prospects, older people mourned lost natural areas due to environmental damage, she explains from her everyday practice. In some places in Austria it is already so dry that growing wine is no longer worthwhile. This is an economic disaster for farmers. As a result, some developed depression and therefore had to be treated psychiatrically.

It has long been proven that climate change promotes diseases. Mostly it is about cardiovascular, pulmonary and neurological diseases, less often about the psychological consequences. The topic has been in practice for several years, says Wrobel. The consequences ranged from depression, aggression, post-traumatic stress disorders and even suicide. In an article in the journal Nature, researchers estimate that unchecked climate change could lead to 9,000 to 40,000 additional suicides in the United States and Mexico alone by 2050.

After Hurricane Kathrina, scientists asked those affected about the disaster. Half of those surveyed suffered from post-traumatic stress disorders. The other half complained of anxiety and depression. In another study, researchers were able to show that different extreme weather events can put different strains on the psyche. To do this, the scientists compared the results of over 100 studies on the consequences of climate change and also interviewed selected experts. The researchers were unable to determine a clear influence of global warming on the psyche. However, the study points out that different extreme weather events can have different psychological impacts.

Heavy rainfall and flood events therefore increase the risk of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. “When someone loses their belongings and perhaps relatives also die, it often triggers lasting trauma,” explains Wrobel. There is also the risk of infectious diseases caused by contaminated water or mold formation in buildings.

According to the study, (cyclone) storms primarily cause stress and can also trigger psychiatric disorders in healthy people. Fires primarily increase the risk of anxiety and depression. The same applies to droughts, which can also lead to drug addiction because of the threat to economic existence. Malnutrition caused by drought also causes fatigue and lethargy. It also increases the risk of mania and psychosis.

Heat is associated with increased mortality. What is particularly striking is that an increasing number of people are having to be admitted to hospitals because of psychosis or dementia, the researchers write. It has long been scientifically proven that heat waves disrupt the hormonal balance in the body. Sustained high temperatures stimulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the level of the happiness hormone serotonin. Heat not only reduces performance, but conversely promotes aggression, depression and anxiety. According to the psychiatrist, younger people's willingness to take risks and addictive behavior also increased.

Some people develop fears in the face of negative headlines and the noticeable consequences of climate change. Experts distinguish between “eco-anxiety” and “eco-grieve”. The former describes a fear that awakens the fighting spirit and thus motivates climate-friendly action. In the other case, fear paralyzes. Wrobel hears this often in her practice: "Many of my patients believe that they can no longer do anything about climate change. They resign." Younger people are mostly affected.

Globally, climate change is particularly damaging residents of the Global South. In Central Europe, the heat particularly affects the elderly, single people, the chronically ill, the homeless and the unemployed, says Wrobel. People who work outdoors and those who lack the financial means to adapt to climate change are also affected.

However, there is currently no patent recipe for treatment. Meanwhile, doctors don't have much left to inform themselves about climate change and to take their patients' concerns and fears seriously, but also not to overestimate them. "Many people say that they are afraid of blackouts, which is often evoked in the media. This creates panic," says Wrobel. In the practices, she and her colleagues try to encourage patients again and show them that everyone can do something about climate change. “One of the things we try to do is motivate them to get involved in environmental protection organizations, for example.” Depending on the symptoms and clinical picture, the only option in the end is medication to treat anxiety disorders and depression.

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