MyMichigan Health: Can the weather affect your mental health?

MyMichigan Health: Can the weather affect your mental health?

Many factors can play a role in your mental health, including causes that are out of your control, like the weather. Certain weather events, particularly those that are more extreme such as flooding, wildfires or winter storms, can affect an individual’s mental health in a negative way.

Q. Are patients reporting anxiety and depression due to climate change and the changes in weather patterns?

A. Yes. According to a survey by the American Psychiatric Association, 48% of Americans believe climate change is affecting their mental health. The unpredictability of the weather in recent years, coupled with increased frequency of extreme weather events and fluctuating temperatures, has led to an increase in stress and anxiety.

Eco-anxiety is a term used for those who experience significant apprehension due to the irrevocable looming effect of climate change caused by human activities and the declining health of our planet. There are also mental health conditions that occur or are exasperated by experiencing an extreme weather event firsthand.

Experiencing severe wildfire, flood, hurricane, winter storms, drought, heavy downpours or heat waves may be associated with a change in mental health conditions. The fires in California and Colorado and the freeze in Texas that shut down the state’s electric grid, and the most recent flood in Midland, are just a few examples of such events.

These events cause stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The eco-trauma symptoms may have lingering effects not only on individuals who had firsthand exposure, but there are also increasing reports of eco-trauma among folks who were traumatized by watching people deal with severe climate events and those who are worried about climate change. 

Vulnerable populations are more likely to be disproportionately affected by these events. We also know that people living with mental illness are more likely to be vulnerable due to economic inequalities that they deal with and co-occurring comorbid disorders, which make it harder for them to cope or adapt to changes. We must also recognize that those underserved communities, which often include people with severe mental illness, rely upon services and infrastructure that may be disrupted in extreme weather events.

Q. How can climate change affect a person’s day-to-day coping skills?

A. Rising average temperatures are associated with mental and physical impacts. We know that heat waves increase incidence of insomnia, substance abuse, suicide, aggression and deaths from dehydration, particularly in the elderly. When extreme heat causes dehydration in those taking a psychotropic medication, it can interfere with the body’s interaction with such medications. Under certain conditions, it can even create serum toxic levels of some medications, such as Lithium. 

In addition, when we look at air and water quality, this, too, may influence people’s daily lives. For those with asthma and other respiratory conditions, poor air quality makes it more difficult to breathe. Finding fresh water to drink is a real challenge for many around the globe.

Q. If someone is struggling, when should they seek treatment?

A. We must understand that we are all vulnerable. If one is having trouble sleeping or eating, is having increased anxiety, or is having trouble managing in other ways, they should see their primary care provider, therapists or psychiatrists to get appropriate help. Providers can help them devise a treatment plan.

Ferdnand Osuagwu, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at MyMichigan Health. He is the Chair of the American Psychiatric Association Caucus on Climate Change and Mental Health.

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