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The Silent Epidemic: Climate Crisis and its Impacts on Mental Health

By Niku Sedarat


Climate change is arguably one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. However, it isn't just about melting ice caps and extreme weather events. In fact, its ripple effect cascades into the realms of human health and well-being. While the impacts of climate change on health often revolve around physical health risks, its immense impacts on mental health are often ignored and undermined. 

In the past year, the world has witnessed unprecedented heat waves that have scorched communities across the globe. While the soaring temperatures have affected everyone, research from Geohealth on the 2021 Extreme Heat Event (EHE) has revealed a particularly alarming trend: individuals with schizophrenia are disproportionately vulnerable to the adverse effects of extreme heat. In fact, this vulnerability extends beyond mere discomfort; it can be a matter of life and death.

To fully understand why individuals with schizophrenia are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, it's crucial to delve into the physiological and pharmacological intricacies at play. Medications, like clozapine, that are typically prescribed to control schizophrenia symptoms have been proven to disrupt the body's ability to regulate its internal temperature, leading to an inhibition in sweating—a crucial bodily mechanism for thermoregulation. Impaired thermoregulation due to disruptions in the brain's hypothalamus, along with the effects of antipsychotic medications on body temperature, leaves individuals with schizophrenia particularly vulnerable to the physiological strains of extreme heat waves that are often associated with the climate crisis. 

Beyond schizophrenia, the extreme heat waves associated with the climate crisis can have a wide range of implications for individuals grappling with a variety of different mental health challenges. For example, lithium—a mood-stabilizing medication—is often prescribed to individuals with bipolar disorder to reduce mania and decrease the risk of suicide. During times of extreme heat waves or water shortages, people with bipolar disorder who become dehydrated are at greater risk of lithium toxicity as their body is unable to excrete the unchanged lithium. Depression, often comorbid with schizophrenia, incurs associations with increased risks of heat-related death, highlighting the compounding effects of multiple mental health conditions. Substance use disorder, another common comorbidity, further heightens vulnerability—potentially impairing decision-making and exacerbating physiological susceptibility to heat.

Undeniably, the mental health impacts of climate change are diverse and far-reaching, affecting individuals and communities worldwide. The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, from hurricanes and floods to wildfires and droughts, leave communities devastated in their wake. The trauma and grief inflicted by these events can have long-lasting psychological effects, including increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Displacement, loss of homes and livelihoods, and the disruption of social support networks further exacerbate the mental health challenges faced by affected individuals and communities. The degradation of natural environments, including deforestation, pollution, and loss of biodiversity, contributes to a growing sense of eco-anxiety—anxiety about the climate—among individuals concerned about the future of our planet. This existential threat posed by climate change, coupled with feelings of powerlessness and despair, can lead to psychological distress and a sense of hopelessness about the future.

As climate change exacerbates resource scarcity and environmental instability, communities can be at risk of being forced to flee their homes in search of safety and security. Climate-induced migration can often lead to displacement, loss of cultural identity, and social dislocation—all of which can take a severe toll on mental health. Critically, climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities, amplifying existing social inequities and exacerbating mental health disparities. Low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous peoples, and other vulnerable populations especially bear the brunt of climate-related impacts, facing higher risks of heat-related illnesses, environmental injustices, and inadequate access to mental health services.

Ultimately, in confronting the intertwined challenges of climate change and mental health, proactive measures are imperative. It's crucial to remember that hope remains, but NOW is the time to take action. From bolstering resilience and social support networks to ensuring equitable access to mental health services and advocating for climate change reform, holistic approaches are essential to mitigating the psychological toll of our rapidly changing and indispensable world. Only by recognizing and addressing the complex interplay between climate change and mental health can we hope to forge a more sustainable and resilient future for all.



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