Combating the hidden costs of climate change on our mental health

The connection between mental health and climate change is garnering increased attention in both the media and amongst the research community. We'll explore how these two areas are linked and what organisations can do in response to the rise of eco-anxiety.

March 10, 2023

Turn on the news, and at least one story is likely to touch on the topic of climate change or mental health. There are daily reminders of how we must do more to protect and preserve the natural environment. The effects of modern life on our mental health also dominate the headlines. 

According to The Guardian, out of 54,000 medical research papers that mentioned climate change from 2010-20, less than 1% also mentioned mental health.    

However, an increasing body of evidence shows that these two areas - mental health and climate change - are linked and can no longer be viewed in isolation. In an interview, Dr Gesche Huebner, Senior Research Associate at the University College London Energy Institute, said: “Climate change is the biggest mental health threat in decades to come.”

What is the connection between mental health and climate change?

You can look at this question from a few different angles. The threat of a natural disaster looms daily for hundreds of millions worldwide. Flooding, wildfires, and severe drought are the reality for so many people. These events threaten their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods. The physical devastation is clear to see. However, its toll on people’s mental health may be less overt. Trauma, PTSD, anxiety and depression often remain years after a natural disaster. A seminal report by the Grantham Institute and Institute of Global Health Innovation found that psychological trauma caused by climate-driven disasters exceeds those of physical injury by 40:1.

In the UK, extreme weather events and flooding are also becoming more common place. A 2022 ONS study uncovered that 75% of adults in Britain are worried about climate change, causing increased anxiety levels at work and home. Respondents reported feeling a general sense of anxiety and helplessness. The expense of making eco-friendly changes was also a concern, which is likely to have deepened with the recent cost-of-living crisis in the country. 

“Ideas are impractical and, for many, too expensive.”

ONS Survey, 2022

Eco-anxiety - what does it mean?

Anxiety caused by climate change has its own term - eco-anxiety. In a nutshell, it refers to the concern felt over current and future environmental harm. No one is immune to eco-anxiety, and anyone can be affected, regardless of age, gender or background. The constant media coverage and the increasing pressure to do more constantly feed these feelings. That is why eco-anxiety is on the rise. A recent global survey by the University of Bath indicated that around 4 in 10 young people fear having children due to the climate crisis. 

How can we combat the effects of climate change on our mental health?

We can’t avoid the fact that something needs to be done about climate change. However, it isn’t a journey we can do alone. We can all make many small, inexpensive changes at home and at work. Individually, it might not seem like much, but collectively these will matter.

In many cases, our practical action won’t just minimise our carbon footprint but also directly improve our mental wellbeing. For example, you might commit to walking or cycling to work rather than driving. Spending time in the natural environment is vital to our overall mental health. During the pandemic, we spent more time outdoors than ever before, with many people reporting how this helped them cope. But now, as the rapid pace of life returns, it’s easy for these things to fall down the priority list. 

Finding new and creative ways to reduce food waste is another step we can all take. This might include reusing leftovers or sharing surplus food with your neighbours or colleagues. Food is also a great way to connect with people and build community, another driver of positive mental health. 

By taking these small steps, we can start alleviating those feelings of helplessness that drive our anxiety around climate change.

"Actions that address climate change will have an even greater return than currently expected, as they will prevent or reduce negative effects on mental health that have not yet been considered in policies and budgets”

Imperial College London 2021

How can organisations respond to eco-anxiety?  

Many organisations are already on their way to designing and implementing strategies to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their environmental sustainability. In certain instances, this increases pressure on staff at all levels to do more in their roles or demonstrate their contribution to the cause. 

Apps and analytics platforms are also being added into the mix to measure ongoing performance against carbon targets. Accountability is needed, but organisations must involve staff from the outset when deciding the best way forward. This ensures ownership of the final approach to sustainability. It also creates a culture where climate action and mental health can be discussed together, helping build a more well-rounded approach. 

Organisations that can show how they are positively investing in people and the planet are more likely to attract the best talent, reduce absenteeism rates, and improve employee engagement.