In Commentary, Research

Mental Health and Our Changing Climate

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose have reawakened conversations on the connection between climate change and extreme weather.  And it’s relatively easy to find solid explainers on the science of how our warming world intensifies storms (this one and this one, for example).  But climate communication is about more than just sharing facts and potential solutions.

In addition to supporting relief efforts, helping directly on the ground, and all of the work our community is doing to slow, stop and reverse climate change, it’s also vital to demonstrate our care and support for those impacted by hurricanes, flood, drought, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

Research shows that some people seem to  function more effectively in difficult situations than others do. An individual’s ability to recover from and even grow after  trauma depends on a complex and dynamic set of factors.  ecoAmerica’s “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate  report, published earlier this year in collaboration with leading psychologists and the American Psychological Association, offers important insights that can help us increase our own and others’ personal resilience.

Mental Health Tips

Following are edited excerpts from the report, offering proven tips for supporting individuals’ success in becoming resilient before, during, and after a severe weather event. Whatever your sector or role, we encourage you to make use of these recommendations and link to the report in your communications about the hurricanes. (They are relevant, too, for the recent earthquake in Chiapas, Mexico).

  1. Build belief in one’s own resilience. People who feel positive about their ability to overcome a source of stress and trauma do better than people with a lower sense of self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy is related to a sense of control: one’s belief in one’s potential to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task.
  2. Foster optimism. People who are able to re-frame and find something positive in their circumstances, rather than becoming stuck in a cycle of negative emotions, tend to do better than those who are less able to regulate their thinking, emotions, and actions.
  3. Cultivate active coping and self-regulation. Maintaining an awareness of one’s own thoughts, judgments, and behavior is more empowering than being passive. Self-regulation means cultivating the ability to control one’s immediate impulses in favor of a more considered, long-term strategy.
  4. Find a source of personal meaning. Involvement in a faith community or spiritual practice (such as meditation) has been found to protect mental health in people experiencing trauma.
  5. Boost personal preparedness. Most emergency kits contain food, water, supplies, and medication. But it’s equally important to include items that can help shore up mental health. These can include anything one finds comforting, from special photos or keepsakes and religious objects to children’s blankets and toys, books or a journal, and favorite games.
  6. Support social networks. Higher levels of social support during and in the aftermath of a disaster –both off- and online — are associated with lower rates of psychological distress. Cultivating and maintaining strong connections to others, and reaching out for emotional and practical support,  are essential for mental health.
  7. Encourage connection to parents, family, and other role models. Spending time with family and friends helps protect the mental health of youth experiencing the impacts of climate change. Parents and caregivers also serve as buffer against trauma and protect children from neglect and abuse. The presence of non-caregiver role models, such as teachers or coaches, is especially important following natural disasters. 
  8. Uphold connection to place, when possible. As climate change alters the landscape,it also forces change upon cultures tied to the land. Research in affected communities indicates that even so, people do not wish to leave their homes. Staying in a place to which one feels connected can increase resilience because people are more likely to take adaptive  actions, such as preparing for future events.
  9. Maintain connections to one’s culture. New immigrant and refugee communities are vulnerable groups whose mental health benefits from a connection to culture, especially during adversity. Family cohesion, participation in religious traditions, and cultural connectedness have been found to protect these individuals’ mental health during difficult times.

If you reside in or are visiting an affected area, we hope you are safe and are getting the help you need during this challenging time of heavy climate impacts. For further information about the report or about building resilience at the individual or community level, please contact Chief Engagement Officer Meighen Speiser: meighen@ecoAmerica.org.

 

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