Burning questions: Can climate change affect mental health?
Summer in Tahoe this year –now that it has finally arrived after a historically epic, long winter—has brought its customary splendor: verdant aspen leaves flutter in the breeze; hardy alpine flowers glow in vibrant hues of mustard, crimson and violet; the lakes move and murmur in shimmering rhythms, beckoning and mysterious.
It’s glorious and delightful… and I feel oddly guilty for being able to enjoy this bounty; to be beneath skies that aren’t choked with smoke—and a little nervous knowing it’s only a matter of time before the dangerous haze returns to the Sierra Nevada.
If you’re fortunate enough to be breathing clear air as you read this, do you struggle with a tinge of guilt and dread, like I do? Or, if you’re looking out your window at yet another dusky, gritty sky in the midwest or east coast… or the inescapable heat in the south… do you feel that creeping sense of unreality, like one of those unsettling Netflix series has started to seep into your real life, tainting it inch by inch, hour by hour?
An April 2023 article for the American Psychological Association cites many significant mental health impacts proven to result from the severe hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and heat events in recent years, including increased incidents of PTSD, suicide, aggression, anxiety, and gender-based violence. According to that APA article, “Even some Americans who have not been directly affected by a climate disaster are experiencing climate anxiety—an overwhelming sense of fear, sadness, and dread in the face of a warming planet or anxiety and worry about climate change and its effects.” (How does climate change affect mental health? (apa.org))
Whether one “believes in” the effects of greenhouse gas emissions or not, our collective future on this planet will feature more disasters with every passing year; more days of gritty, dangerous air; more battles with insurance companies over flood or fire coverage; more battles with depression and anger, domestic violence and substance abuse, as people are forced to change how they live in order to stay safe. An October 2022 New York Times story on the effects of climate change on mental health noted that “millions of Americans now brace for seasons with a sense of heightened worry. Will children be able to play outside without smoky skies? What storms will shroud the Atlantic Coast? Will the house survive another wildfire season?” (How Climate Change Inflicts a Toll on Mental Health – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
So as we gaze into the future, how do we keep these grim likelihoods from coloring our experience, painting it apocalyptic orange even when the skies –for the moment—are clear?
For one thing, I think we will become more and more adept at compartmentalizing experiences. I think we’ll have to. Like what I’m doing today as I write this: I breathe the crisp mountain air and look at the (seemingly) endless blue sky, and I think: Today is beautiful. The smoke and fire may come –will come—but not today. Today is beautiful.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. To learn more visit http://www.jaenabloomquist.com
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