Deadly heat waves, home-wrecking hurricanes, neighborhood-scorching wildfires: When you stop to think about it, global warming can be downright depressing. Now, scientists are starting to validate that feeling.
According to accumulating evidence, climate change won't just trigger new cases of stress, anxiety and depression. People who already have schizophrenia and other serious psychological problems will probably suffer most in the aftermath of natural disasters and extreme weather events.
"When these events happen, people with pre-established mental illnesses often have more extreme difficulty coping than the rest of the population," said Lisa Page, a psychiatrist at King's College London. "This is an area we maybe need to think about a little more seriously."
In public health circles and even in climate talks, scientists have looked a lot at how climate change might affect physical health, by for example, spurring the spread of malaria, dengue fever and other infectious diseases.
For the most part, though, the experts have made only vague references to the link between climate change and mental health, even though evidence for such connections is starting to pile up. In a review of the published literature, Page and a colleague found a variety of examples.
After natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, for instance, studies have clearly documented a rise in post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and other mental disorders. The same symptoms occur during infectious disease outbreaks.
In the future, climate models predict more destructive storms, more floods, more droughts and more diseases. In turn, the new study suggests, more psychological crises will follow.
Heat waves — like the one that killed some 70,000 people in Europe in the summer of 2003 — will also happen more frequently, last longer and be more severe in coming years. The mentally ill will be hardest hit by these events, Page suspects, because they're more likely to live in substandard housing without air conditioning or other amenities.
Many psychotropic medications also increase the risk of dying from heat-related complications. So does substance abuse, which is common among people with mental illnesses.
People with pre-existing mental challenges will probably also have an extra hard time dealing with other forecasted consequences of climate change, including the sinking of coastlines and mass migration away from flooded shores.
Then, there's the general sense of sadness that can come from reading about climate change again and again, and recognizing that the world is changing.
"It's when you realize things aren't the way they used to be," said Giovanni Leonardi, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "It's a sad state to go outside and it's sunny and you worry about it. We didn't used to worry about it being sunny."
Acknowledging the mental challenges involved in climate change should hopefully help public health officials prepare for them.
"Recognition of the issue is the first step towards addressing the problem," Leonardi said. "It's the first step toward helping ourselves to cope with it."