April 20, 2022 – When Rachel Lendner, a 52-year-old health educator based in Teaneck, NJ, heard that this February was the warmest in history, her heart skipped a beat.
"I have a physical reaction of anxiety to hearing about climate change,” she says, in part because she is a parent. “What are we doing to this planet?"
A new poll from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) finds Lendner is not alone in her worries. The nationally representative poll done between March 19 and March 21 of this year shows that 51% of the 2,210 Americans surveyed are anxious about climate change and its impact on future generations.
"When you read about an ice shelf the size of the island of Manhattan breaking off Antarctica, it’s a very tangible, dramatic representation of climate change’s impact," APA President Vivian Pender, MD, said in a news release. "But there are so many unseen mental health impacts as well, whether it’s in the anxiety over our children and grandchildren’s future, or the trauma to those who are physically displaced by fires or violent storms."
Widespread Mental Health Effects
Each month, the APA does polls focusing on a topic affecting mental health, Pender told WebMD. "APA’s position for many years is that climate change is a public health problem with widespread mental health impacts," she said.
Most people polled (58%) said that climate change is already impacting the general health of Americans, and 48% said that it affects the mental health of Americans, although more were worried about the impact of climate change on the planet than on their mental health (55% vs. 39%, respectively).
People were divided on how news about climate change affects their mood, with 42% reporting it affects them "some" or "a lot," and 43% reporting "not much" or "not at all."
"Some amount of anxiety and discouragement in relation to the climate crisis is a normal response," Pender said. She advised "assessing your behavior," especially if you have a mood condition, because you might be "a little more affected than others by some of these climate events."
For example, if you are feeling more cranky or angry, using alcohol or drugs more often, not sleeping well, or don’t have much of an appetite, “it’s important not to dismiss those feelings and changes but to do something about them,” she said, either by checking with your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist.
Young Adults More Anxious
Anxiety levels were even higher in young adults aged 18-34 years. Of this group, 66% were anxious about the effect of climate change on the planet, 51% were worried about its impact on their mental health, and 59% were worried about its impact on future generations. People in this age group were also more likely to believe climate change is already affecting Americans' physical health (64%) and mental health (57%).
There may be many reasons young people reported more anxiety than their older counterparts, Pender said. "Talking about mental health is more acceptable in the current era, with social media connectedness among young adults, so they may be more willing to express their feelings of anxiety."
Young people, especially teens, also "tend to be more idealistic and think about what’s important in life."
The constant use of social media by young people "means they’re on the internet more, on their phones all the time, so they’re more connected with people to talk about how they’re feeling, and they’re more connected with the news, and are able to follow minute-by-minute any event, including climate events, that are going on around the world," Pender said.
Women were more likely than men to feel anxious when thinking about the potential impact of climate change on future generations, a finding that Pender didn’t find surprising. This "may have to do with the number of women generally worried about their children and their future," she said.
Among all the people polled, 53% believe climate change is caused by human activity, 16% believe the cause is not yet determined, 13% believe it’s caused by something other than human activity, 8% don’t believe in climate change, and 11% have no opinion. Democrats were particularly likely to feel anxious when thinking about the impact of climate change on future generations (69% of people polled).
A ‘Public Health Emergency’
David Barg, a 52-year-old businessman based in Cherry Hill, NJ, says he’s "anxious about the fact that other people are anxious about climate change," because he believes it is "completely exaggerated and it’s unnecessary for regular people to worry."
While he says climate change is occurring, he predicts no "dire consequences happening in the next thousand years."
In contrast, Lendner is very concerned. "I feel that people who are denying there’s a problem with climate change have other political views that scare me, and they make me very anxious,” she says. “When we start talking about the political climate, I have physical feelings of anxiety that the world is a scary place."
Personal experience may affect people’s views on climate change. People in the Northeast and Western regions of the U.S. reported being more worried about the impact of climate change on the planet (57% and 58%, respectively), rather than the Midwest and South (50% and 54%, respectively).
People living in the West have faced weather disasters, such as wildfires, which may contribute to their concerns.
"It’s one thing to be prepared for any climate event, but it’s another thing to live through a climate-related disaster, which can be very traumatic and cause grief – especially if a person has lost a loved one or lost their home or there are financial losses," Pender said. She encouraged people who have had these traumas to seek help in dealing with them.
In a news release, Elizabeth Haase, MD, chair of the APA Committee on Climate Change, described climate change as a "public health emergency."
"We can’t neglect mental health when we call it out,” she said. “Our care for the planet is our care for ourselves, and by taking action, we help ourselves with its mental health effects.”