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‘Climate anxiety’ is on the rise. Here’s how leaders can address the mental health crisis

Climate change is associated with an increase in behavioral health problems that will only become worse as the globe continues growing hotter and natural disasters, wildfires, floods and droughts wreak damage on the mental health of people around the world. Here are actions CEOs and leaders can take to address the problem.

Tom Sullivan | April 4, 2022

Two events within recent history illustrate the impact climate change is already having on the mental health of individuals: 49 percent of Hurricane Katrina survivors developed a mood or anxiety disorder, 1 in 6 experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide rates more than doubled1 and after a record drought in the Upper Midwest during the 1980’s suicide rates doubled — to approximately 900 — among farmers.2 

Whether it’s described as eco-anxiety or climate distress, the impact that climate change is having on humans’ mental health is coming into sharper focus and the data illustrates a disconcerting picture beyond those two examples.  

New research, for instance, shows that 67 percent of Americans believe climate change is impacting the population’s health, 55 percent are anxious that climate change will negatively impact their own health and 51 percent of young people around the world feel helpless regarding the consequences of climate change.3 

When it comes to addressing mental health, 98 percent of CEOs spanning multiple industries indicated that doing so will continue to be a priority after the pandemic.4 While 69 percent of clinicians and 67 percent of clinical leaders indicate that it’s important for organizations to recognize the impact they are having on the environment and establish appropriate policies and practices to reduce that, the same is true of only 54 percent of executives.5 And a disconnect exists between the 96 percent of CEOs who think their companies are adequately supporting employees’ mental health needs and the 69 percent of employees who agreed with that perception.6

With that in mind, Health Evolution examined multiple research reports to better understand the scope of climate change’s impact on the mental health of individuals to inform CEOs with actions they can lead today and what to expect in the near future.  

How climate change influences mental health   
The United Nations in its Climate Change 2022 report explained that increasing temperatures, trauma from extreme weather events, loss of livelihoods and culture, even the threat of vicarious or anticipated adverse weather-related events can negatively impact mental health.7 

Warming temperatures also correlate to higher rates of death by suicide8 and responses to extreme heat include aggressive behavior, irritability and violence.9 As many as 45 percent of children and 54 percent of adults experience depression in the wake of natural disasters.10


Confronting the behavioral health crisis is among Health Evolution’s 8 imperatives emerging post-pandemic.


What’s more, environmental pollution has been associated with bipolar disorder, personality disorder, schizophrenia.11 Still other responses are substance abuse, insomnia, scapegoating and losing interest in activities.12 Chronic mental health effects of climate change, meanwhile, include: post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded stress, strains on relationships, loss of personally important place or identity.13   

“Mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, are expected to increase under further global warming, particularly for children, adolescents, elderly and those with underlying health conditions,” according to the UN report.14 

Actions CEOs can lead now 
Adequately confronting climate change’s influence over the mental health crisis will demand that leaders embark on a number of broad initiatives to strengthen system resilience, enable C-suite and clinical staff to become climate-literate, lessen the organization’s impact on the environment and prepare for changing conditions in the future.

Focusing on system resilience. Recommendations for building more resiliency into the health system include: prioritizing community building, addressing disparities and updating communications infrastructure15 as well as expanding the mental health infrastructure, training people who will serve in an emergency, developing action-oriented warning systems and having disaster and post-disaster plans.16   

Enabling climate-literacy. Presenting an opportunity, 54 percent of clinicians and executives said that their organization’s patients have little to no awareness of the health impacts of climate change.17 Since climate change can be politically sensitive to discuss, it may require training staff to begin such conversations. Questions such as what a patient has seen or read about climate change that struck them or even what they are feeling about the issue can be good starting points.18 Some medical schools, Emory being one example,19 are building climate change’s health risks into the curriculum. And climate-literate CEOs and executives can also be vocal leaders and work to create broader support for solutions.20 

Lessening the negative impact an organization makes on climate change. There is a business case for investing in environmentally-friendly programs and tools. Addressing high energy costs, for example, can help hospitals control expenses within typically tight operating margins.21 Further, reducing carbon output, whether via net zero emissions initiatives, renewable power purchase agreements, zero-carbon electricity or other means can reduce expenses and save lives22 if managed appropriately. Energy conversation efforts, in fact, are the principal initiative health care executives are undertaking, with 42 percent of organizations having such a program, followed by sustainable waste management (38 percent), awareness programs for employees and/or patients (30 percent), supply chain sustainability requirements (23 percent), and carbon footprint assessment (22 percent).23  

Preparing for changing conditions. Taking steps to improve system resilience, enable literacy, lessening the impact an organization makes on the climate won’t future proof efforts to address mental health and leaders should continue to monitor emerging situations and prepare to confront those as they arise.

Looking toward the future, executives and clinicians are anticipating further climate-related disruptions within three to five years, including supply chain issues (59 percent), air pollution related illness (61 percent), exacerbation of existing disease (57 percent), increased demand for care services and power outages.24   

Climate change-induced threats that the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control is anticipating include “increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.”25

The mental health impact of COVID-19 will continue beyond the pandemic,26 and yet another issue is on the horizon: Generation Z. In 2019, one in three high school students experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness equating to a 40 percent increase over 200927 — and that was prior to the pandemic. 

The reality is alarming enough that in December 2021 the U.S. Surgeon General circulated a public health advisory urging the nation to address what it described as a youth mental health emergency explaining that “it would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.”28

That possibility is indeed real: Today, Gen Z has the least positive life outlook of any generation alive, with lower levels of emotional wellbeing, but they are also the least likely to seek treatment despite being the most common to report a behavioral health diagnosis.29

Conclusion 
While the ongoing COVID-19 crisis will impact the mental health of people far longer than the pandemic itself, the world at some point will move beyond this coronavirus phase — yet climate change challenges will persist well into the future.  

Many of the same tactics that CEOs and their executive teams deploy to address climate change’s impact on overall health can be broadened to include mental health if they do not already. Among those are creating plans to meet the needs of the population an organization serves, engaging in partnerships with other sectors, such as the transportation and housing sectors to help people access care and have a safe place to live and of course, listening to best understand how to address the problem.

“Health and well-being would benefit from integrated adaptation approaches that mainstream health into food, livelihoods, social perception, infrastructure, water and sanitation policies requiring collaboration and coordination at all scales of governance,” the UN stated in its report.

Sources & Citations:
1 American Public Health Association, Climate Changes Mental Health
2 American Public Health Association, Climate Changes Mental Health
3 National Institute for Health Care Management, Climate change is affecting our mental health
4 Fortune/Deloitte, For CEOs, 2021 is the year of hope
5 New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, The growing link between climate change and health
6 Ginger, Workforce attitudes toward mental health
7 United Nations, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability
8 Nature Medicine, Anomalously warm temperatures are associated with increased injury deaths
9 Association for Psychological Science, Global warming and violent behavior
10 American Public Health Association, Climate Changes Mental Health
11 Plos Biology, Environmental pollution is associated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders in the US and Denmark
12 Yale Climate Connections, How climate change affects mental health
13 Association for Psychological Science, Global warming and violent behavior
14 United Nations, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability
15 National Institute of Health Care Management, Climate change is affecting our mental health
16 Association for Psychological Science, Global warming and violent behavior
17 New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, The growing link between climate change and health
18 Yale Climate Connections, How climate change affects mental health
19 WABE, Emory med school teaches health risks of climate change
20 American Psychological Association, Mental health and our changing climate: impact, implications and guidance
21 Deloitte, 2017 survey of US health system CEOs: Moving forward in an uncertain environment
22 Health Affairs, Adding a climate lens to health policy in the United States
23 New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, The growing link between climate change and health
24 New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, The growing link between climate change and health
25 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Climate effects on health
26 Health Evolution, COVID-19’s mental health impact: converging crises mean it will persist beyond the pandemic
27 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth risk behavior surveillance data summary and trends report: 2009-2019
28 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Protecting youth mental health
29 McKinsey & Company, Addressing the unprecedented mental health challenges facing Generation Z

About the Author

Tom Sullivan, EVP & Editor-in-Chief of Digital Content

Tom Sullivan brings more than two decades in editing and journalism experience to Health Evolution. Sullivan most recently served as Editor-in-Chief at HIMSS, leading Healthcare IT News, Health Finance, MobiHealthNews. Prior to HIMSS Media, Sullivan was News Editor of IDG’s InfoWorld, directing a dozen reporters’ coverage for the weekly print publication and daily website. Contact: toms@healthevolution.com or @SullyHIT on Twitter.