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Climate Change Is Making Natural Disasters Worse — Along With Our Mental Health

Crews set a backfire in an effort to gain control of the massive Caldor fire near the Tahoe basin in California on Aug. 26.
Crews set a backfire in an effort to gain control of the massive Caldor fire near the Tahoe basin in California on Aug. 26.

Through fires and hurricanes, through lethal heat waves and flash floods, the world seems to be ending — or at least, that's what it feels like.

All around us, we're seeing the effects of climate change. Wildfires are raging through the West. Much of southeast Louisiana was flattened by Hurricane Ida, and parts of New York and New Jersey are digging out from disastrous flooding.

And if it seems like natural disasters are happening more and more often, that's because they are: Climate change has helped drive a fivefold increase in the number of weather-related disasters in the last 50 years. Climate change means disasters are happening simultaneously, too.

These disasters are getting more severe, too. Weather records are being broken thanks to climate change turning previously impossible occurrences into startling realities.

As a result, many people are dealing with what's commonly referred to as "eco grief," a type of mental exhaustion that stems from accepting the harsh realities of climate change and feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. Added to that is "disaster fatigue," another type of emotional tiredness that comes from dealing with an abundance of bad news and steadily occurring crises — like near-constant headlines of devastating disasters.

Jeffrey Garcia, an engineer living in Glen Burnie, Md., has grown up with an awareness of ecological problems thanks to a childhood spent in Albuquerque, N.M., where drought is a persistent specter, he said. Today, he, like many others, is still troubled by what he sees as "cascading issues" and while he understands the nuance — the world isn't going to immediately burn down — there's still a persistent sense of dread, he explained to NPR. One that he tries to combat with knowledge and action.

"The voice of anxiety feeds on exaggeration and hyperbole. And while it is easy to feel that flash of fear ... there's over 7 billion people on this planet that all have a vested interest in [the worst] not happening," he said.

Still, the instability of that future has led Garcia and his wife to reconsider whether to have children.

It's a sentiment that he's not alone in; Katie Oran, a 25-year-old wildfire planner working in Sacramento, Calif., feels much the same way.

"I think almost every single one of my friends, none of us want to have children," Oran said. "Just because thinking about bringing children into an uncertain future doesn't necessarily seem fair. We talk a lot about where we should move, where is safe ... I don't really know if anywhere is safe [though]."

On Sept. 3, a motorist drives past houses damaged by Hurricane Ida in Grand Isle, La. Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, causing flooding, wind damage and power outages along the Gulf Coast.
Sean Rayford / Getty Images
On Sept. 3, a motorist drives past houses damaged by Hurricane Ida in Grand Isle, La. Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, causing flooding, wind damage and power outages along the Gulf Coast.

The string of disasters is making us anxious

If you're worried about the environment, you aren't alone. A poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association last year showed that nearly 70% of adults in the country are at least somewhat anxious about what climate change will do to the planet, and slightly more than half are worried about what toll that will take on their mental health.

"We are burned out and our resilience is really down," Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist, author and environmental activist, told NPR. "It's making us raw to all of these new challenges that we face. They're coming too fast, too furious, and too many."

An unfortunate side effect of being informed are the emotions, like helplessness, that come alongside that knowledge. Some, like members of a climate change support group in Salt Lake City, deal with those feelings by banding together. But it's harder for people like Oran, whose jobs give them a front-row seat to the worst of what's happening to the planet.

It's scary, Oran said, not knowing exactly what will come next.

"There's a lot of unknowns about how already-occurring natural disasters will get worse, whether it's flooding or hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and so I think that with the unknowns and uncertainty, it's difficult to plan for the future," she said. "And I think that we can work as hard as we can to retrofit homes and to build with non-combustible materials and to create defensible space around homes. But fire will come."

Taking action may be the answer — not just for the planet but for your mind

Worsening mental health amid ongoing disasters is something that's on the radar for mental health providers, too, Van Susteren says.

"We know that if we don't tend to what people are feeling, that they will turn inward on this and they will find themselves increasingly alone and under siege themselves internally," she said. "I've said as bad as the storms are outside, the storms inside are even worse."

The effects of climate change that we're seeing are already mentally draining (and for many who live in affected areas, directly damaging), but unfortunately, experiencing these natural disasters amid an ongoing global pandemic is exacerbating the situation. As Van Susteren explained, "The pandemic has made us more raw."

As with any mental health problem, seeking professional support is encouraged whenever possible. Thankfully, there are therapists who specialize in climate anxiety, who can be found on directories — like this one — listing "climate-aware" mental health professionals.

Another solution? Action, however small, is a good way to start. Van Susteren suggests focusing on the three P's: personal, professional and political. Reflecting on what you can do personally to combat climate change can mean examining your own carbon footprint and ways to lessen it. Professionally, you can connect with those you work with to raise awareness and make changes at your workplace. And finally, there's always work to be done politically.

"That means that we're all now charged with being enlightened citizens who can change leadership," Susteren explained. "Someone wise once said when the people lead, the leaders will follow. We need to make sure that elected officials who understand what we're up against are writing policy that reflects it."

Even in the midst of what feels like a burning world, there's always something you can do.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.