The earth is falling apart around us, slowly in some ways, but deteriorating quickly in others, with the threat of our lives and our homes at stake. Humans have overcome a lot in the last few years, with COVID taking over our lives, watching our world’s infrastructure fall apart, and being environmentally aware of the destruction occurring around us. Our brains are taking a hit too, with mental health decreasing due to pollution and other climate change-related factors.
The study field of mental health has quickly changed in the last 50 years, as scientists have worked to research the human brain and environmental impacts that impair one’s psyche. Though there has been little studying on how environment changes such as climate change and global warming affect individuals mentally, of what research has been done, there is groundbreaking evidence that climate change can affect a human not only physically, but mentally as well.
Mental health impacts how a person behaves, thinks, and makes decisions. Mental health and drug addiction disorders have increased by 13% in the last decade according to the World Health Organization. 450 million people worldwide suffer from some type of psychiatric disorder, and there are many things that influence one’s mental state. Biological and psychological factors are the two main causes of mental illness, and environmental factors, such as the earth’s decline and how it affects the human race, can also change an individual’s brain chemistry, impacting their mental health.
We are well aware of the impact pollution has on humans physically, but what about the link of pollution to the brain? Heavy metals, organic solvents, and air pollution are the most studied types of manmade and natural toxicants implicated in human psychological functioning.
Scientists have found evidence that heavy metals may play a role in the development of various mental health disorders. Lead, cadmium, and mercury affect psychiatric disorders. Mercury poisoning is the second most prevalent heavy metal toxicity, and there are several reported cases of mental illness due to mercury poisoning. Even low level exposure to arsenic, can lead to cognitive dysfunction and mood disorders, because it disrupts serotonin and dopamine levels.
We know that climate change poses great health risks to the individual’s quality of life, but how do these affects present themselves on a psychological level? How does climate change change the way an individual sees the world? When natural disasters strike, food security is just one issue that causes mental stress on individuals, yet there are larger amounts of trauma that change a victim’s brain chemistry.
The BBC news published an article titled “Climate Grief: How We Mourn a Changing Planet,” and introduced a new term: Climate Grief. Climate grief, also known as Ecological Grief, is the emotional response to loss of life, as it relates to the decline of the planet. Whether this loss be a community, due to an environmental disaster, or even the sadness one feels overcome with as they mourn the loss and beauty of our planet. Ecological grief refers to a sense of sadness humans feel due to the long term effects of polluting the earth, and climate change. Research is lacking in this field, yet there is more ecological grief expected in the future, as individuals continue to mourn the loss of life and ecosystems on the planet.
Researchers have found that there are three types of loss that impact the individual, evoking that grief: Acute or past physical ecological loss, loss of environmental knowledge, and anticipated future loss. Place attachment is also another issue that provokes ecological grief, as areas of the planet are destroyed, homes, friends and families homes, places that take value in the heart, and are destroyed or affected by climate change, then causes pain in the brain. Many people build their own personal identity around an area, or place, and when said place is lost, it causes immense mourning and grief.
Apart from ecological grief, new terms are being used to describe the emotional responses from climate change effects. “Solastalgia” is a grief response to losing an important place, similar to being homesick while still at home, a response that occurs when someone loses a place that feels like home to them, a place where they have created a sense of attachment to. Solastalgia also covers the anxiety felt when an individual has lost something, and is anxious to also lose something in the future, this feeling causes lifestyle changes in some, in hopes to not lose that special place in the future.
“Eco-anxiety” is a climate change-related environmental degradation and loss of species or way of life. Eco-anxiety is a response to threats by climate change, whether slowly or quickly, and may also bring feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and uncertainty of the future. Over time, this can turn into a generalized anxiety disorder, where the anxiety is no longer related to environmental change, but rather an overall anxiety for the future, with fear of no change.
Solastalgia and ecological grief go hand in hand, as they are the loss of something close to someone, whereas eco-anxiety is the fear of the future, the fear of future ecological loss, that can then turn into a more intense disorder.
Though there are many more avenues for researchers to cover when it comes to these new climate related terms, the most at risk groups are individuals of impoverished areas, where only three percent of studies have been done for these regions. Mental health studies cover difficult topics, because each experience is different for the individual, especially related to their location in the world.
In the United States, there are many organizations working to break the stigma on mental health, and help individuals who struggle mentally, and although those individuals are no less than anyone else their risk factors are not as large as individuals in other countries who have less resources and depend on their environment more. Although there are studies trying to implement resources for the community to reach out to, there is no correlative research, to catch all, for individuals everywhere.
With this information, we now know that saving the planet not only entails the physical aspects of the dying planet, but also the wellbeing of the inhabitants on it, mentally and physically. Working towards a better future, and making positive changes to the earth will not only encourage others, but create a more positive future for humanity, for years to come.
What kind of earth are you leaving for the generations beyond your lifespan?