Aug 28, 2023 - News

Extreme heat, natural disasters leading to climate distress

Illustration of overlapping caution icons with exclamation points and severe weather imagery

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Mental health professionals are organizing nationwide to deal with an onslaught of issues related to climate change.

Why it matters: Natural disasters trigger a range of traumas, including "climate distress," which refers to grief, anger, anxiety and despair about the future.

  • Extreme heat may make climate change feel more palpable here. In Miami-Dade County in 1970, the average number of days above 90°F was 84. It's now 133.
  • The Climate Psychiatry Alliance's online directory of mental health professionals offering climate-aware psychotherapy lists two in the Miami area.

What's happening: The American Psychiatric Association (APA) put out key reports about mental health and climate change in 2014 and 2017 before forming a mental health committee about two years ago, its chair, Joshua Wortzel, tells Axios. Other health groups focusing on climate include:

Details: Wortzel tells Axios studies show hotter temperatures correlate with increased violence, including homicides and suicides.

  • Rising temperatures also expand the range of ticks, which pass on Lyme disease.

Between the lines: "Cognitive avoiders" deny climate change as "coping mechanisms so that they don't feel bad," Lise Van Susteren, a Washington, D.C.-based psychiatrist who co-founded the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, tells Axios.

  • "Maybe their paycheck depends on it. Maybe they risk being ostracized from a group that they're in that doesn't believe in climate change or is focused on other issues."

What they're saying: "Climate really is a metaphor for our senescence — our vulnerability and our eventual death," Van Susteren says.

  • Susan Glickman, a consultant with ​​Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, tells Axios she doesn't have statistics on how many patients have climate-related mental health issues, but anecdotally, "I see it."
  • "It used to all be 'down the road,' and it's not," Glickman says.

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