Why we mustn’t forget the effects of climate change on mental health

Suicide rates in Puerto Rico have risen by a third since Hurricane Maria.

climate change effects on mental health include suicide risk

Myriam Ruiz waits inside the emergency room with her father, Luis Alberto Ruiz, after he attempted suicide, in Caguas, PR on Sept. 29, 2017.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, it didn't just flatten houses and flood hospitals – it plunged the island into a darkness that many islanders have yet to emerge from, both literally and metaphorically.


The catastrophe sent the island into the longest blackout in US history. Six months after the disaster, many residents are still without access to power. “Such prolonged darkness is insidious to community mental health," says Oxiris Barbot, First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Barbot visited the island as a relief worker two months after the disaster and found nearly everyone she met knew someone in their immediate circle or one degree removed who had contemplated or died by suicide. Preliminary data from Puerto Rico's health department suggests that suicides were up nearly a third in September and October compared to the same period for 2016.

Physicians know that extreme events can have negative impacts on mental health, causing symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But in a recent paper, researchers admitted that much is still unknown about the consequences of disasters on long-term behavioural health.

In Puerto Rico, most of the islanders were unable to evacuate and so weathered the full trauma of the storm. Some were isolated and without assistance for days or weeks afterwards. In the following months, many faced hardships such as bereavements, loss of income and limited access to fresh water and food.

living in darkness after a power shortage can affect mental health

Carmen Correa uses a candle for light in her dark apartment as she deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 30, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It's an experience that could leave a lasting imprint. "Exposure to trauma not only affects you in the moment, it affects you for the rest of your life if you don't have access to support services that will help you develop effective coping skills," Barbot says.

But little is known about how survivors of extreme events respond relative to the help they receive, according to Sandro Galea, Dean at the Boston University School of Public Health. He says scientists need to investigate the most effective post-disaster responses to both physical and mental health challenges: "The stigma that you can just 'get over' mental illness remains. In truth, one can get over mental illness roughly the same way one can get over a broken bone by oneself – with difficulty, and likely in a way that will not result in proper healing."

Public health researchers need to invest in research that prepares health systems for the next extreme event, Galea says. The first step would be to identify at-risk populations from both a physical and mental health perspective. Then health workers could act to create resilience and mitigate the consequences in vulnerable communities.

Doing such research now, before the next hurricane hits, could reap significant financial savings in disaster response efforts. "The payoff is enormous," Galea says. "And if we ask the right questions, we can mitigate mental health consequences that cost people's lives."

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Keep reading Show less

Science confirms: Earth has more than one 'moon'

Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.

J. Sliz-Balogh, A. Barta and G. Horvath
Surprising Science
  • Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
  • These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
  • The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
Keep reading Show less

6 easy ways to transition to a plant-based diet

Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.

Credit: sonyakamoz / Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Transitioning to a plant-based diet could help reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Humans are destroying entire ecosystems to perpetuate destructive food habits.
  • Understanding how to properly transition to a plant-based diet is important for success.
Keep reading Show less

Karma doesn't work how most people think it does

Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.

Culture & Religion
  • Karma is not simple retribution for bad deeds.
  • Eastern traditions view karma as part of a cycle of birth and rebirth.
  • Actions and intentions can influence karma, which can be both positive and negative.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

What stops people from changing their minds?

A persistent barrage of information is not the best method for getting through to someone with a different point of view.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast