Climate Change and Stronger Storms Take Toll on Mental Health

The cumulative effects of natural disasters can take a serious toll on your mental health.

August 15, 2013

Wildfires, hurricanes and other natural catastrophes do undoubtedly take a toll on the mental health of people in their paths: stress over property damage, worries about loved ones living near affected areas, the headache of trying to evacuate en masse on gridlocked roadways. And stress doesn't end when the clouds (or fires) roll through. Researchers at Tulane University tracked heart attack rates for five years following Hurricane Katrina and uncovered a fourfold increase over pre-Katrina rates, which they attributed to chronic stress created by recovery efforts.

It appears that the mental and physical stress associated with these major storms will continue to worsen, according to a report from The Climate Institute, an Australian nonprofit devoted to combating climate change. The report, titled A Climate of Suffering: The Real Costs of Living with Inaction on Climate Change, suggests that extreme weather conditions caused by climate change and the ensuing cleanup and recovery efforts will exacerbate rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. As a result, the authors predict those conditions will lead to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, family struggles, and even suicide. According to one study by Australian psychologists, rates of suicide and "self-harm" jump 8 percent after droughts and heat waves. Children can be among the most affected. A study of elementary school–age children found that one in 10 suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as long as three months after 2006's Cyclone Larry, the second costliest cyclone in Australia's history.


Then there are the broader social impacts. Storms, floods, and droughts tend to push up cost-of-living barometers, such as food and gas prices, which imparts a financial strain on already-stressed residents, and small businesses that rely on goods produced in disaster-prone areas—whether it be farms in drought-ridden areas or oil refineries in the path of a hurricane—have to lay people off if they can't meet their financial commitments. Those can increase psychological problems for people both directly and indirectly impacted by disasters.

And Australia provides a unique insight into what the U.S. could ultimately suffer from, both mentally and physically, says Linda Marsa, an investigative journalist who spent a month there researching her book Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health—And How We Can Save Ourselves. "Australia is on the front lines of climate change," she says. The weather there has gotten more and more erratic as everything from droughts and wildfires to floods and cyclones have hammered the country. "It's just endless," says Marsa. "And Australians are just what you see on TV—great, outgoing, happy, pioneering kinds of people, but because of the real lack of relief from natural disasters, 25 percent of the population is suffering from depression."

The U.S. could soon follow pace. "We're starting to see the leading edge of this now," she says. In 2011 alone, there were massive natural disasters in all 50 states, and 12 disasters caused damages in excess of $1 billion. The financial strain, the stress of rebuilding and the related physical health problems associated with these all take a toll on your psychological well being, says Marsa.

To help combat climate change:

• Save energy and drive less. According to research from the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, an individual consumer's largest impact on the environment comes from seven things: cars; meat and poultry farming; crop production; home heating, hot water, and air conditioning; household appliances; home construction; and household water use and sewage treatment.

For tips on saving energy, see Save Money, Cut Greenhouse Gases: It's Easier Than You Think.

• Eat organic. When grocery shopping, demand organic food and stick with mostly fruits, vegetables and grains. When you do buy meat or dairy products, make sure they're grass fed.