Climate Change Could Impact Our Mental Health — We're Just Not Exactly Sure Why

Oct 9, 2018 at 2:23 p.m. ET
photo of climate change affects on australia
Image: Ian Waldie/Getty Images.

Earlier this month, the United Nations issued a dire warning: If we do not change our behaviors and energy consumption soon, it could have a damning effect. In fact, the organization says that we have until 2030 to stop climate change; if not, temperatures could exceed a threshold level. However, more is at stake than we initially imagined. According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the increased heat could also lead to a decline in mental health.

In fact, the research reports that short-term exposure to more extreme weather — like getting increasingly hotter over time — and tropical cyclone exposure can be associated with a decline in mental health.

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The study analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a self-reported mental health database of nearly 2 million randomly sampled U.S. residents, as well as meteorological data over a 10-year period (from 2002 to 2012). What researchers found was that even a moderate temperature increase could have a negative effect on one's mental well-being.

In fact, a 1-degree C change — or a 1.8-degree F increase — could cause a 2 percent increase in mental health problems in just five years.

What's more, the shift from average monthly temperatures between 25 degrees C (77 degrees F) and 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) greatly increased one's likelihood of experiencing mental health difficulties.

That said, Nick Obradovich, lead author of the study and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, told CNN that the exact correlation between mental health problems and increased temperatures is unclear. 

"We don't exactly know why we see high temperatures or increasing temperatures produce mental health problems," Obradovich told CNN. "For example, is poor sleep due to hot temperatures the thing that produces mental health problems?" But he notes, "[W]e have a lot of work to do to figure out precisely what is causing what," as those affected by the rising temperatures experienced everything from increased stress to depression, anxiety and/or other emotional issues.

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Obradovich also acknowledges the elephant in the room, i.e., that this data raises other questions, like why don't individuals living in warmer places have worse mental health than those who live in colder locales? "Warming over time associates with worsened mental health over time," Obradovich told CNN. However, "there are many other place-specific factors that may moderate the effect."

As such, he and his colleagues concluded additional research is necessary. In the meantime, take care of yourself and keep an eye on the weather.

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