Climate Change: The Mental Health Risk-Factor You Never Considered

January 19, 2022

Do you consider climate change a risk to your mental health? For me, a Broadcast Meteorologist and Climate Journalist, the answer became clear after covering the rebuild and recovery in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence devastated parts of the state in 2018.

Extreme weather disasters and a crumbling infrastructure contribute to an expanding socioeconomic divide, which can put more stress, anxiety, and feelings of lack of control on lower-income families. Climate Central, a research and reporting nonprofit organization, recently shared a report on how climate-related health risks, such as extreme urban heat, have a greater impact on children, the elderly, low-income individuals, and communities of color. The report highlighted how hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate-related catastrophes can significantly impact individuals’ mental health. These stressors may lead some down a path of maladaptive coping, whether that be through disordered eating or substance abuse. The development of eating disorders can sometimes be tied to traumatic events or situations where there is a sense of lack of control. It’s understandable that in the aftermath of an extreme weather event, control is something anyone may reach for.

Three years after Hurricane Florence, I spoke with Reverend Robbie Phillips about how her community still lacks control in the aftermath. Rev. Phillips is still on the front lines of the rebuild in coastal North Carolina, where she leads the Carteret Long-Term Recovery Alliance, a local nonprofit that helps Florence survivors get back on their feet. Rev. Phillips was the most honest, raw interview of my career; chills ran up and down my spine as she tried to give a voice to the voiceless.

“The poor are disproportionately impacted — the elderly, disabled, lower-income families, and families with children in the homes are going to be more impacted by this than people on the barrier islands,” she said. Rev. Phillips’ story is backed by data shared in the recent Climate Central report, which displayed that certain regions in the U.S. suffer from more health burdens caused by climate change than others.

Think about it…who lives on the most vulnerable, flood-prone land? The poor community members who can’t afford to evacuate and rebuild every time it floods. Flooding that is only getting more extreme and more frequent with climate change. And what happens when these neighborhoods are unable to access food, safe shelter, and basic healthcare needs in the wake of extreme weather?

These are community members who traditionally lack access to proper healthcare, including mental healthcare, in the first place; access that becomes even more scarce after the storm. All that time with no power, flooded roads, and mangled homes could mean missed therapy sessions, physical checkups, and no funds for medication. And for some, these interruptions can be detrimental.

The mayor of Beaufort, NC, Rhett Newton, echoes Rev. Phillips’ concerns. “My five biggest challenges as mayor are substance abuse and addiction, crumbling infrastructure, degraded water quality, the effects of climate change, and an expanding socioeconomic divide.” And all of these problems are interrelated and exacerbated for individuals living with mental illnesses, such as eating disorders.

Mayor Newton recognizes that these problems don’t occur in a vacuum, “That divide got exposed by Hurricane Florence, it got widened by Hurricane Dorian, and it’s been deepened by the pandemic.”

“People don’t really think about climate change as a health risk until it’s glaring them in the face: until you are inhaling smoke from wildfires, or battling a hurricane or the floods where you can’t access your medications or go to your primary care appointment that you had next week,” said Liz Cary, a registered nurse.

Post-traumatic stress after experiencing an extreme weather event has become so common that FEMA has created crisis counseling programs for these types of triggers. And it’s not only mental health that is negatively impacted; asthma, allergies, food quality, and heart health all have climate connections. As our temperatures warm, pollutants get trapped in our air, allergy season gets longer, and agricultural seasons are mistimed.

North Carolina Clinicians for Climate Action see the fight for our planet as the same fight for health equity and resilient communities. This is why Cary calls climate change a public health emergency, “It’s important to just remember we have such a huge impact on our health when it comes to taking care of our planet.”

The good news in all of this is that there are solutions. We understand climate science well and know how renewable energy can curb greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of extreme weather. We also know that help is available and recovery is possible, you don’t have to go through the challenges of mental illness alone.

Elisa Raffa
is a broadcast meteorologist and climate journalist at FOX Charlotte. A graduate of Cornell University, she holds the American Meteorological Society Certified Broadcast Meteorologist distinction, CBM #813. Native New Yorker, she’s covered sunny, snowy, and stormy skies across the country, from Iowa to Missouri, and now currently in North Carolina. With a passion for communicating climate change, she’s earned national and international recognition for using everything from beer, chocolate, snow shovels, and vultures to help viewers relate to the climate crisis. When she’s not on-air, you’ll find her writing lessons and testing hands-on activities in weather and climate science for kiddos at local science museums.