While the health effects of climate change are being increasingly recognised (WHO, 2018), and the Right to Health is embedded within the Paris Agreement, mental health impacts have received little attention to date (Berry et al., 2018; EASAC, 2019). Mental health encompasses mental illness, problems and disorders, as well as states of mental wellness, emotional resilience and psychosocial well-being (Hayes et al., 2018).
Raising awareness of the mental health impacts associated specifically with climate change and related hazards is further challenged by the lack of data and difficulties of demonstrating attribution (Hayes et al., 2018). Nonetheless, research has documented how short and longer-term mental health impacts may result directly or indirectly from exposure to extreme or prolonged weather-related events and disaster events (Cianconi et al., 2020). Indeed, events such as flooding, damaging storms or forest fires can lead to displacement from the home (or even permanent relocation), reduce access to social support networks and contribute to the breakdown of relationships, loss of identity and sense of place, which undermine capacity to cope (Tapsell, 2002). Indirect impacts on mental health may be caused by financial losses, deterioration in physical health or strains on interpersonal relationships. Both indirect and direct sources can trigger or exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, while increasing the burden on (mental) health services.
Scholars have emphasised the importance of adopting a holistic, systems-based view to understand the series of reactions which separately and interactively exacerbate risks to mental health and well-being (Berry et al., 2018). Beyond the individual, the wider system, and underlying policies and politics, are just as important for understanding and addressing the detrimental effects of climate change on mental health. Therefore, various policy responses may exist – from investing in ‘climate resilient’ (mental) health and social care services, awareness-raising initiatives and education on psychological health, mental health training amongst emergency responders and community-based initiatives to enhance social networks. Proactive approaches may also be useful, such as increasing access to preventative health care measures known to improve mental health and well-being (such as access to green-blue spaces; Bell, 2015; White et al., 2019).