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Climate Change and Mental Health: How Social Workers Can Make an Impact

February 3, 2023

Climate change’s effects extend far beyond its impact on the Earth. The issue also has significant implications for the health of the planet’s inhabitants.

Researchers have long explored links between climate change and physical and mental health challenges. A 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, cites the warming Earth’s impact on plants, animals and weather — and the illness and death that can occur as a result of climate change.

Concerns about these outcomes are also taking a toll. A 2021 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) and environmental nonprofit ecoAmerica reveals that nearly 80 percent of Americans are concerned about climate change. About 25 percent report they are “alarmed” about the issue, nearly double the percentage reported by Americans in 2017. These emotional impacts can be especially dire for populations that have fewer resources to address the mental health effects of climate change.

With their focus on enhancing the well-being of all people — particularly the most vulnerable — social workers are uniquely positioned to help address the impacts of climate change on mental health.

How Does Climate Change Impact Mental Health?

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in global temperature and weather trends. While natural phenomena like shifts in the sun’s magnetism can affect climate, human actions are the main source of the problem.

Emissions from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas have helped drive climate change. According to the United Nations (UN), the Earth is 1.1 degrees Celsius (about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer now than it was in the late 1800s.

This warming has contributed to a variety of physical and mental health issues. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) calls climate change “the biggest health threat facing humanity.” Some of the health impacts of climate change include:

  • Injury and death from extreme weather
  • Respiratory illnesses due to poor air quality
  • Illnesses related to extreme heat
  • Malnutrition caused by poor growing conditions

Climate Change and Mental Health

Mental health concerns associated with climate change are no less pervasive. These impacts can occur as people react to specific events or in response to broader concerns about the crisis.

For example, the world is experiencing more frequent weather-related disasters, according to the World Meteorological Organization, with one occurring every day on average over the past half-century. The organization places much of the blame for this trend on climate change. Following natural disasters, it may be common for people to experience issues such as:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Increased substance use
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Concerns about the broader impacts of climate change also can lead to mental health challenges. Weather is becoming warmer, for instance, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reporting that June through August 2022 was the Northern Hemisphere’s second warmest summer in recorded weather history — with the summer of 2020 being the warmest. Such prominent reminders of the dangers of climate change can lead people to feel an increasing sense of despair about the issue. This feeling of hopelessness is often referred to as “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety.”

Increasing temperatures can also lead to an increase in violence. A 2020 report in Environmental Research Letters notes the correlation between hotter temperatures and violent crime, predicting that the worsening effects of climate change could potentially contribute to an increase in violent crime in the U.S.

Research on the Mental Health Effects of Climate Change

A number of studies provide evidence of the various short- and long-term mental health dangers that climate change can pose.

A 2020 report in Frontiers in Psychiatry notes the many impacts that climate change can have on mental health. The study also found that concerns about the environmental impact of climate change can pass from generation to generation, fueling more long-term mental health challenges.

A 2021 study published in Science of the Total Environment reveals a link between short-term exposure to heat (about 27 degrees Celsius or 81 degrees Fahrenheit) and emergency room (ER) visits for mental disorders in general. It found a positive correlation between increasing temperatures and a greater number of ER visits for:

  • Anxiety and mood disorders
  • Substance misuse
  • Schizophrenia
  • Dementia

A 2020 report in Nature Medicine shows a correlation between climate change and an increased risk of death from unintentional and intentional causes, including suicide. The report urges that changes be made to social infrastructures and health systems to help protect against these outcomes.

Resources: Helping to Contain Climate Change

Several organizations offer tips and strategies to combat global warming as well as help individuals mitigate the impact of climate change on mental health. The following are some of the more notable efforts toward slowing or stopping climate change and minimizing its impact on human health and well-being:

Social Work, Climate Change and Mental Health: How Social Workers Can Help

As a helping profession with a focus on supporting the most vulnerable, social workers are uniquely positioned to address the impacts of climate change on individuals and communities. This work can include counseling people with mental health issues or connecting community members to support services.

Social Workers and Mental Health Support

The primary mission of social work is to help people enhance their well-being and meet their basic needs, including physical and mental health care. In the context of climate change, social workers may provide mental health support before and after climate-related events such as floods or wildfires. Social workers may also educate clients and community members to help them understand environmental factors that affect their health, such as an older adult who may be at risk for dehydration and heatstroke on a summer day.

Additionally, social workers can refer clients to counseling to help them manage anxiety related to climate change. Clinical social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental health disorders can provide this assistance directly.

Social Workers and Community Services Support

Social workers also can help connect clients to essential services during and following climate change-related events. They may help people access support for health emergencies during periods of excessive heat, for example, or help them secure basic needs following a hurricane. They may also provide assistance to clients coping with job loss or displacement due to a weather event.

Social workers also can play a role in disaster preparation. They can provide individuals, families and communities with tips and strategies to help mitigate the damage caused by weather events — which are becoming increasingly frequent and more intense due to climate change — such as:

  • Understanding climate change-related dangers and anticipating their impact
  • Identifying community resources that can provide support before, during and after an extreme weather event
  • Creating a safety plan for addressing challenges related to extreme weather

Climate Change and Mental Health Resources

The following resources provide further information about climate change and its impact on physical and mental health. They also offer tips for social workers to address and protect against these effects.

Social Workers and Environmental Justice

Certain populations are more vulnerable to climate change–related challenges. The EPA notes that these populations can face greater risk because they may:

  • Live in locations more frequently affected by climate-related weather and air quality issues
  • Face limitations related to finances, culture, language or citizenship
  • Live in areas with poor infrastructure, which often cannot withstand extreme weather events
  • Have greater rates of existing medical concerns, including those that limit their mobility and those that can cause respiratory issues
  • Be part of a population that has historically faced racial discrimination
  • Lack adequate education
  • Experience homelessness and/or lack access to affordable, adequate housing or shelter from harsh natural conditions created by climate change

Vulnerable populations such as those in lower income areas often have higher rates of exposure to the adverse effects of climate change. They may also be more sensitive to risk and find it more difficult to avoid or cope with climate-related challenges. People with chronic respiratory ailments, for example, may be more sensitive to air pollution.

In addition to providing direct assistance, social workers can support these groups through advocacy — a cornerstone of the social work profession — by promoting environmental justice.

The Role of Environmental Justice in Social Work

Environmental justice is a movement that strives to overcome the inequities vulnerable populations often face in ensuring a healthy natural environment — including the enforcement of regulations to protect against climate change-related dangers.

The social work field’s focus on human rights, cultural competence and equity can make these professionals particularly well suited to address the unique challenges of populations that have historically struggled to access mental health support and social services. While this work has traditionally focused on the psychosocial and economic factors that drive these inequities, recent efforts have also emphasized the impact of people’s natural environment.

In fact, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) includes environmental justice among its social justice priorities. The organization works with local, state, national and international partners to identify issues related to climate change and mental health, and identify and promote policies to overcome them.

Steps Social Workers Can Take to Advocate for Environmental Justice

Social workers can advocate for policies and practices that mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change on the environment and the community. Approaches that social work professionals may take in their environmental justice efforts include:

  • Working with community members to secure funding for infrastructure improvements that protect against climate change-related damage
  • Identifying opportunities to improve the environment such as planting trees
  • Supporting research to help uncover the effects of climate change and developing policies to address these concerns
  • Helping communities, particularly those at greatest risk, get involved in the environmental justice movement
  • Educating future social workers about how they can support environmental justice

Help Build a Better World With Social Work

Climate change poses numerous physical and mental health challenges, particularly for vulnerable populations. Social workers are instrumental in helping these communities and individual clients grapple with the effects of climate anxiety, extreme weather and other climate change-related concerns.