Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion

Urgent action needed to address mental health risks of climate change

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o1180 (Published 11 May 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o1180
  1. Adrian James, president
  1. Royal College of Psychiatrists

Scientists have sounded the final warning. Without urgent action, climate change will soon be irreversible, with devastating consequences for our mental health.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures is now “almost inevitable,” but can be reversed by the end of the century if we act now to ensure net zero emissions by the early 2050s. It may already be too late to prevent a global mental health crisis.

Research from 196 countries shows climate change is destroying our mental health. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and the destruction of the natural world are contributing to mental illness on a massive scale.

Floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and drought will become even more intense and force more communities to flee their home, with Indigenous people bearing the brunt.

Pollution and warmer weather are fuelling increases in anxiety, depression, and other common mental health problems. One US study found a one degree rise in temperature was associated with a 17% increase in these and other common conditions.1

Higher temperatures are making existing mental health problems worse, with studies showing heatwaves lead to higher demand for mental health services and more hospital admissions.

Exposure to flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires is leaving people with significant mental scars, as one in three people experience post-traumatic stress disorder following an extreme weather event.

We’re creating a new generation of climate refugees facing significant mental health challenges.

Up to 3.6 billion people—40% of the world’s population—are deemed “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change. Those most at risk include children, young people, the elderly, and those with existing mental and physical health problems.

Without urgent action to stop temperatures rising above 1.5 degrees, the mental health impact of climate change will become infinitely worse.

Millions are at risk of developing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other serious conditions.

Mental illness not only affects quality of life, it also cuts lives short. People with severe mental illness die up to 20 years earlier than the rest of the population.

We know the ramifications of climate and ecological emergencies are increasingly noticeable in the UK as well. Flooding—which is associated with anxiety, depression, and PTSD in survivors—is the most common disaster in the UK. Due to climate change floods are increasing in frequency and severity.

The IPCC reports must serve as a call to action for everyone including those of us working in healthcare. We must do much more to reduce our impact on the environment. The carbon footprint of UK healthcare is larger than the total carbon footprint of Estonia and Slovenia combined. The US healthcare system emits more carbon than the entire UK population.

This damning report validates the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ decision last year to declare a climate and ecological emergency. The College has called for international cooperation and urgent action from governments to tackle the crisis.

We need to make healthcare much more sustainable. NHS’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions and aim to be the world’s first net-zero national health service will play a key part in this.

Every new doctor, nurse, and health care worker must be taught about the importance of delivering healthcare that is sustainable, preventative, and that promotes connections with our natural environment.

From 2022, every new psychiatrist will receive sustainability education as part of their specialist training. We also need to empower patients to have a much greater say in their treatment so they can co-produce more sustainable care.

The pandemic has demonstrated our collective ability to act swiftly to protect public health and to completely change the way we structure our lives in the process. As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s channel our energies into tackling the climate emergency. The health of our planet and all those who inhabit it demands nothing less.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not peer reviewed

References

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