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June 14, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

The Climate Change Mental Health Epidemic

by Dania Y. Lofton

In the late 1990s, I can remember hearing about “El Niño” and learning more about global warming from climate change advocate, Al Gore. Since then, Americans have made strides to become “human rights/social justice/civil rights/climate change warriors” by:

  • Initiating “Go Green” campaigns.
  • Encouraging plant-based diets and promoting the plant-based food industry.
  • Providing tax incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles and solar energy panels.
  • Recycling plastic bottles into clothing.
  • Providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and assistance to those impacted by climate disasters.
  • Collecting and donating food in the aftermath of extreme weather events.
  • Providing “Loads of Hope” by large corporations, such as Procter & Gamble, after extreme weather events.
Fighting climate change requires a multifaceted approach that must include an emphasis on improving mental health equity.

Fighting climate change requires a multifaceted approach that must include an emphasis on improving mental health equity.

All of these strategies are aimed at reversing and mitigating the issue of climate change, but none adequately address the alarming public health impacts of the climate crisis. Fighting climate change requires a multifaceted approach that must include an emphasis on improving mental health equity—an issue exacerbated by extreme environmental events. The effects of climate change on mental health increase the need and demand for mental and behavioral health services; however, there is a shortage of mental and behavioral health professionals available to many affected communities due to policy restrictions on the provision of services, such as those imposed by licensure requirements or scope of practice under Medicare.

Although the root cause of inequitable environmental effects is unknown, empirical studies suggest that race, in comparison to socioeconomic status, is the strongest predictor of environmental exposure. Studies also show that women, children, communities of color, individuals with pre-existing mental health disorders, seniors, and indigent communities are the groups most impacted by climate change. Although these communities are not the largest contributors to the climate crisis, they are more likely to suffer from health inequities due to the lack of access to health care services.

Climate change has not yet been declared a public health emergency, despite multiple studies finding that climate change contributes to chronic and severe mental and behavioral health issues, such as anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, according to a report released by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica in 2017, “Among a sample of people living in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled, one in six people met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and 49 percent of people living in an affected area developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.” To reduce the barriers and challenges of access to quality mental health services, climate justice requires the implementation of programs and services supported by public policy and legislation.

President Joseph Biden’s executive orders tackling the climate crisis, both in the United States and globally, formalize the administration’s commitment to make environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency by directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.

Grassroots advocacy at local, state, and federal levels for the provision of quality mental health services will amplify the voices of those in need of access and build the legislative support needed to encourage policymakers to sponsor and pass legislation that addresses mental health disparities in marginalized communities.

Take Action Now!

Please take action by calling, writing, or emailing your elected representatives to ask for their support of:

•   The National Climate Emergency Act of 2021 (H.R. 794) sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), which requires the president to declare a national climate emergency and ensure that the federal government “invest[s] in public health, in preparation for and in response to increasingly extreme climatic events” in addition to combating environmental injustice by curtailing air, water, and land pollution from all sources; removing health hazards from communities; remediating the cumulative health and environmental impacts of toxic pollution and climate change; ensuring that affected communities have equitable access to public health resources that have been systemically denied to communities of color and Indigenous communities; and mobilizing every resource at the country’s disposal to halt, reverse, mitigate, and prepare for the consequences of this climate crisis.

•   The Mental Health Access Improvement Act of 2021 (H.R. 432) sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), which has garnered bipartisan support due to its significance, and a bill to amend Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to provide for the coverage of marriage and family therapist services and mental health counselor services under Part B of the Medicare program, and for other purposes (S. 828) sponsored by Senator Jon Barrasso (R-WY), which provides access to mental health care by providing coverage for marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors under Medicare.

Visit the American Counseling Association’s Take Action center to learn more about how you can support Americans’ mental health.

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Dania Y. Lofton

Government Affairs Specialist, American Counseling Association

Dania Y. Lofton is a government affairs specialist with the American Counseling Association. Her portfolio includes mental health policy areas as they relate to climate change and mental health.