Climate change and brain health...
August, a time to relax and make some time in our busy schedules to think about issues that we are usually too tied up to consider. Let’s take on one that most of us in our profession may not think has a direct effect on us: how climate change affects the brain.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there will be some 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to the direct impacts of climate change (Watts et al., Lancet 2015). As human physical health is threatened by the impacts of climate change, so is mental health. Many recent studies have linked climate changes to mental disorders and behavioural problems, including major depressive disorder, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. And it is clear that climate change only exacerbates existing inequalities, as those at highest risk are the most vulnerable and marginalised populations. However, causal links become hard to determine as studies are not usually designed to assess causality. In many instances, extreme weather and natural disasters cannot be interpreted as directly resulting from climate change. Yet climate change and mental disorders could be connected, for instance, through the trauma caused by floods, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves. Migration is another factor impacting mental health, with some estimates of more than 25 million migrating due to climate change in the coming years.
Although there are a number of initiatives addressing this issue and endeavouring to mitigate the effects of climate change on mental health (e.g. measures to enhance and protect mental health in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2016-2030 or the United Nations Human Settlement Program that promotes sustainable urban development), there is clearly a need for additional research within the specific domain of climate change and mental health. There is also a need for scientific societies to become involved in this arena.
The issue of climate change does not escape from the broad objectives of our College: “To ensure that advances in the understanding of brain function and human behaviour are translated into better treatments and enhanced public health”. Members of our executive board, with Mark Millan at the helm, are concerned with this issue as was captured in the paper they published in our journal (European Neuropsychopharmacology) in 2015: “Learning from the past and looking to the future: Emerging perspectives for improving the treatment of psychiatric disorders”.
There may be many reasons why we do not take climate change more seriously. Anthony Giddens, a former director of the London School of Economics, stated what he calls Giddens’s paradox, which, as it relates to health, can be paraphrased as: People may be aware that they have a dangerous habit, but when they begin to experience the negative health effect it is already too late. There are many other less sophisticated reasons for climate change denial – just ask Trump and he will give you a few!