As Extreme Weather Events Increase, So Do Mental Health Needs. How Is the Federal Government Dealing with It?

Susan Weinstein, Families for Depression Awareness

Hurricane. Flood. Drought. Tornado.

Search for any of these weather conditions on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website and you’ll see that these natural disasters have mental health ramifications.

And, as climate change goes, there’s also rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, and the eventual fate of the Earth’s living creatures. This is not something new.

Twenty years ago, Anthony McMichael and Andrew Haines published an article in the British Medical Journal entitled, “Global climate change: the potential effects on health.” (pdf download) There, they identified a startling number of potential health impacts from climate changes anticipated to “be far greater than any natural change in world climate since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago.” In particular, they anticipated that mental health would be most affected by extreme weather events, rising sea level’s effect on population, and “social, economic, and demographic dislocation through effects on economy, infrastructure, and resource supply.”

Extreme weather events – packing greater intensity and occurring more frequently – are a tangible manifestation of climate change. The recent string of hurricanes striking the U.S., including Harvey, Irma, and Maria, have brought mental health issues to the forefront as people in the affected areas deal with both the hurricanes and their aftermath.

The federal government maintains the SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) to help states and other authorities to deliver an appropriate and effective behavioral health response to disasters, from preparedness through recovery. This includes webcasts and podcasts and other resources for disaster behavioral health professionals and first responders, as well as a number of fact sheets for survivors. You can subscribe to a variety of DTAC bulletins and newsletters. There is a Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990). SAMHSA even has a bundled “Disaster Kit” with practice guidelines, wallet cards, and many brochures, fact sheets, and tips. And there’s an app for it, too.

Here is a sampling of SAMHSA disaster-related publications, some of which are also available in Spanish and Punjabi:

Addressing the direct impacts is only one piece of this puzzle. As the effects of climate change grow and people’s awareness sharpens, more mental health professionals will need to be equipped to deal with the constant anxiety and depression that may become more prevalent. Experts also expect violence to increase as temperatures rise, raising another set of behavioral health concerns. Of special note is the impact that growing up in such an uncertain time may have on children. Our already-understaffed mental health workforce is not ready for this challenge.

Given the Trump Administration’s tepid stance on climate change as being influenced by human activity (for example, here, here, and here), it seems unlikely that the Executive Branch will demonstrate leadership on this issue. Organizations like the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are among the many who have begun to address the mental health impacts of climate change. It’s an issue that can’t wait any longer.

Your Turn

  • What resources have you found helpful regarding the mental health impacts of climate change?
  • What action do you think should be taken to position the U.S. to deal effectively with climate change-related mental health issues?

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