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William Briggs: Mental Illness To Increase Due To Climate Change

Look out! “Climate change is here, now.” And it is causing an increase in nuttiness and lunacy among those that dwell Down Under.

Or so says Tony McMichael “AO, MB BS, PhD, FAFPHM, FTSE” and others at The Climate Institute, who are authors of A Climate of Suffering: The Real Costs of Living With Inaction on Climate Change.

This report’s purpose is to “raise awareness.” Of what? Of scientists anthropomorphizing climate, apparently: “a failure to reverse rising carbon pollution levels will see Australia’s inherently moody climate become even more volatile.”

The report claims that after a severe weather event “as many as one in five” will slip down the slope of sanity and “suffer the debilitating effects of extreme stress, emotional injury and despair.” These symptoms “can linger for months, even years.”

In recent years, a body of evidence has emerged showing just how insidious, pervasive, deep and—for some people and communities—profoundly dangerous the mental health impacts of climate change-related disasters can be.

For example: heat waves drive up suicides by “8 per cent”. Also increasing: “Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse…including the anxiety of watching reports of others being swept away in floods.” Be on the alert for an uptick in “Numbness & Apathy”, too.

One farmer was found to have claimed low “self-esteem” after a drought. Other farmers kept a stiff upper lip (I don’t know the Australian translation of this phrase). It’s also so that “farmers often demonstrate a higher sense of wellbeing than non-farmers”, but we musn’t be fooled! “[W]hat at first glance appears to be individual resilience may in fact simply be persistence in the face of limited alternatives.” Beneath that smile lies gloom, friends.

Climate change, of course, “compounds the chronic difficulties and inequities that already face many communities.” The “r” word wasn’t specifically mentioned, however.

Global warming, through an increase in both droughts and floods, will force mass migrations and because of that there will be a “heightened risk of stress and tension amongst both newcomers and their host communities.” Civil war?

What about the children! The wee ‘uns are particularly “vulnerable to pre-disaster anxiety and post-trauma illness.”

More than one in ten primary school children were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder the three months following Cyclone Larry1 in March 2006. Common symptoms included flashbacks, nightmares and general state of distress, all of which may have had a deleterious effect on the children’s education and future life prospects.

Yes, future life prospects. But even worse are the adults’ “failure to act on climate change may, like the indecision that perpetuated the Cold War2, lead to long-lived insecurity and anxiety in young people.” Bet you that was the first time you saw the cold war linked to global warming.

Luckily, those who live in North Queensland are used to storms. Long-term residents have thus learned “ways of coping psychologically with the threat.” But it’s not the time for complacency: “as the risk of more violent storms increases, and perhaps spread seasonally, with global warming, we can expect these
normal coping mechanisms to be strained.” So there.

What about heat? It’s not good:

People are better able to cope if the temperature is consistently and predictably hot than if temperatures suddenly soar. Those already suffering from mental and physical illness are particularly at risk. Even people successfully managing their illness may be vulnerable, with psychotropic medication a risk factor in heat-related death. Alcohol and other kinds of drug abuse also raise the chances or injury or death during a hot spell.

The advice that one should ease up on the “psychotropic” drugs during the summer months may be particularly hard for Australians to swallow (or not, as the case may be).

You might have thought there was more crime in the summer because the weather allowed more people to go outside. But several “studies suggest that more aggressive and antisocial behaviour can come simultaneously with high temperatures.” Strangely, there was no crime wave associated with the heat wave across the American south this summer.

How do we save the sanity and “avoid another frightened generation” of Australians? One might have guessed that the answer would be to not frighten the current generation. After all, “one 2007 survey of Australian children’s fears and aspirations for the future revealed that as many as one in four believe that the world will end in their lifetimes.”

Again, no. The best way to avoid frightening is to warn that unless we do something now, the end is nigh.

I don’t want to be too hard on McMichael and The Climate Institute. After reading their report, I find myself depressed, thus proving that thinking about climate change is not good for mental well being.