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In the 1980s it was Aids, before that it was the Cold War. These days, the threat of climate change is the bete noire for more than a quarter of people with anxiety disorders.

A University of Sydney study has found 28 per cent of obsessive compulsive patients are afraid of the effects of global warming – and worry about reducing their global footprint.

In a presentation to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists congress in Auckland yesterday, study author Dr Mairwen Jones said OCD sufferers were often obsessed with checking things, such as leaking taps or lights.

But for the 28 per cent with climate change fears their reasons for doing so were quite different.

“What they were saying to us was they weren’t checking for the usual reasons like not wanting to accidently leave the iron on and causing a fire and losing the house.

“They said to us, ‘We’re checking because we don’t want to waste precious water resources and we’re checking we haven’t left the light on because we don’t want to contribute to global warming and use too much carbon. We want to reduce our global footprint.’

“There were some people doing things we don’t tend to see like checking their pet’s water bowl to see there’s water in it and worry about cracks in walls and the floor caused by drought.”

It wasn’t unusual for people to become obsessed about something that is talked about all the time so the study probably tapped into people’s fears about climate change, Dr Jones said.

She said she had heard of a Melbourne case of “climate change delusion” where doctors found it impacted on a patient with depression.

“So I was kind of interested, for our clients with anxiety disorders, has it actually impacted on the nature of their sorts of presenting symptoms as well, and that kind of kickstarted the research.”

But climate change is not the first potential calamity to make anxiety sufferers jumpy.

“Concerns in a society can impact for some people on their mental health. We know, for instance, over the decades like in the 50s with the Cold War, with the notion of the threat of nuclear destruction, people did develop concerns about those issues, feelings of hopelessness and despair.

“Then with the HIV/Aids virus being identified, for people with OCD we knew of some who had specific obsessions about contamination so a sufferer sitting next to someone on a bus feared they may, for whatever reason, became infected.”

Dr Jones expected to see more of the phenomenon. “I’m hoping more people will look into this issue – not just OCD [but] how it effects people’s depression, [and] other mental health disorders – because I think it’s something we need to look at.”

The New Zealand Herald, 7 May 2010