Dec. 16, 2022 — Laken Brooks, a 27-year-old doctoral student at the University of Florida, has been treating the skin condition psoriasis since her teens. It’s always been a painful and difficult situation, but over the past few years, Brooks has struggled even more. She suspects her psoriasis is worsened by climate change.
“Every year, summer seems to last longer,” Brooks said. “When I first moved to Florida (5 years ago), I noticed that the sunburn and sweat made my skin feel more itchy than usual. I tried to relieve some symptoms by wearing hats and bandanas, and I expected I would adapt New climate. But every year it’s hard to get used to it, the temperatures keep rising and my skin can never really get used to the Florida climate.”
Brooks hits the mark — the growing health impacts of climate change.seventh annual The Lancet countdown to health and climate change, Released this fall, it is confirmed. Written by nearly 100 experts from more than 50 academic institutions and institutions, the report tracks the impact of climate change on global health. The 2022 edition shows that climate change is harming health every year in every region of the world.
Lancet This year’s report identifies four major hazards posed by climate change: air quality, heat-related illnesses, infectious diseases and mental health.
Renee Salas, MD, of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, is a co-author of the report. She often sees how climate change damages the health of patients—especially those who are powerless to mitigate its effects.
“Last summer, we had a patient present in the emergency room with a core temperature of 106 degrees,” she explained. “He meets the criteria for heat stroke. He and his wife live in a high-rise apartment with no air conditioning.”
Salas believes linking climate change to health impacts is part of her responsibility to her patients. Heat, in particular, is one obvious way people understand this connection, she said.
However, the effects go beyond heat. “I have concerns about all of them,” Salas said. “How climate change affects a person will be affected by the way they live and the resources they have.”
The impact of climate on mental health
While heat may be the most obvious hazard people recognize from climate change, the mental health part of the equation is probably the least. Dr. Susan Clayton is Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at Ohio College of Worcester. She has been studying the link between the two for years and has written three papers on the topic, the first of which was published in 2014.
“We’ve gotten to a point where people express that they’re anxious about climate change, but they don’t see it as a mental health threat,” she said.
In her work on this topic, Clayton identified four categories in which climate change affects mental health:
- Increasing Severe Weather Events: As more people experience devastating weather events, more people experience PTSD, clinical anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
- Slower change: It doesn’t take a Category 5 hurricane to take a toll on mental health. As temperatures rise above normal levels and for longer periods of time, rates of suicide and psychiatric hospitalizations also rise.
- Involuntary Displacement: Many people love and have roots where they live. Their mental health continued to deteriorate as coastal flooding, wildfires and other weather events displaced them.
- Awareness of climate change: As everyone witnesses climate change and becomes more aware of its effects, collective anxiety levels rise. For most people, this is manageable, but it can still be harmful.
While talking about climate change and how it can damage mental health can sometimes increase anxiety and other conditions, it’s an essential conversation, Clayton said. “When you’re overwhelmed and disempowered, you may not be able to cope,” she explains. “But it can also encourage you to pay attention to the issue.”
As the data continues to pour in and prove the link between climate change and health, it remains difficult to understand. For Salas, this is often frustrating.
“I often have to swim against the tide to understand what is causing a patient’s problem in the first place,” she said. “That’s why I do what I do—I can’t just treat patients in the emergency room and call it okay. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”
Recognizing and pointing out that those on the front lines of the fire are often those who lack the resources to change how the climate affects their health is a starting point.
“We recognize that policy and higher-level decision-making drives these conditions,” Salas said. “So I try to find out the risks, educate patients, and then give them advice to protect themselves.”
This looks like advising patients to install air filtration systems in their homes, or to make sure they have a backup plan for using their nebulizers in the event of a power outage. The biggest message to get across, Salas said, is that what’s happening “upstream” harms health. “We need the political and social will to change,” she said. “We’re starting to see this — the health community is emerging and recognizing that this is fundamental to the mission of medicine.”
For those like Brooks who cannot relocate right now, the interim solution is to minimize the deterioration of existing conditions caused by climate change. “I’ve been able to lessen some flare-ups by taking cold showers,” she says. “I don’t intend to live in Florida forever, but right now I don’t have the resources to transplant my life and move somewhere else.”