square bulletClimate Disruption and Psychological Trauma: Preparing for the Worst Makes the Best Sense

July 30, 2019

From David A. Pollack, MD, Professor Emeritus for Public Policy, Oregon Health and Science University

According to the World Health Organization and other health science experts, climate disruption represents the most urgent and severe public health threat of the 21st century. Concerns have escalated to the point where a coalition of major health groups recently called climate change a “health emergency” and launched the “US Call to Action on Climate, Health, and Equity.” Although a number of public health concerns and specific climate related physical health conditions have been identified, the specific psychiatric, psychological, and psychosocial impacts are becoming increasingly apparent and are undeniably immediate, significant, pervasive, and long-lasting. In addition to raising awareness of the mental health impacts and their gravity, the connections between climate and health are among the most robust arguments to overcome the climate denial that many people may still manifest.

Looming Psychological Trauma

Among the psychiatric consequences, psychological trauma looms large. It should be readily apparent that many people whose lives are upended by acute extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and wildfires, are at great risk of developing acute and post-traumatic stress disorders. Beyond that, and with the rapid increase in public awareness of the reality and severity of climate change, we are also seeing people exhibiting various symptoms and manifestations of eco-anxiety as well as what some are calling pre-traumatic stress disorder.

Focusing on Mental Health and Public Health

Now that I am retired from my active academic position at Oregon Health and Science University, I have consolidated my post-retirement policy work to be entirely focused on the mental health and public health aspects of climate change. I am a founding member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA), whose primary goal is to elevate awareness and motivate effective efforts to address the clinical, administrative, advocacy, research, and educational implications of this issue. The CPA has engaged in extensive writing and professional/public education on the mental health impacts of climate change, with particular emphasis on understanding and addressing the types of anxiety and trauma conditions that are emerging in acute events as well as the slow-moving disaster the climate disruption represents.

Implementing Public Education

One element of addressing these concerns involves the effective implementation of public education that conforms to the principles of Transformational Resilience. We must educate the general public to have the skills to be psychologically prepared to adapt and constructively respond to events that may occur in their communities and to prevent the despair, resignation, and hopelessness that may precede or follow such events.

Oregon is a leading state in the development of climate and health resilience planning, which primarily addresses the ways to prepare communities for the infrastructure, environmental, and physical health impacts of these disasters. In order to make those preparations more effective, we must simultaneously prepare the public to develop the psychological and psychosocial skills to enable them to be personally prepared and to help others who are negatively impacted by these events.