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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.
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.
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."
- Climate change and depression share grim link - Big Think ›
- Climate change will increase deaths by suicide - Big Think ›
- Climate change to make outdoor work more dangerous - Big Think ›
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.
- Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
- A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
- A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter<p>Still, it's not as if the moon is dripping wet. The observations suggest that a cubic meter of the lunar surface (in the Clavius crater site, at least) contains water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. That's roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water. In comparison, the same plot of land in the Sahara desert contains about 100 times more water.</p><p>But a second study suggests other parts of the lunar surface also contain water — and potentially lots of it. Also publishing their findings in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1198-9#_blank" target="_blank">Nature Astronomy</a> on Monday, the researchers used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study "cold traps" near the moon's polar regions. These areas of the lunar surface are permanently covered in shadows. In fact, about 0.15 percent of the lunar surface is permanently shadowed, and it's here that water could remain frozen for millions of years.</p><p>Some of these permanently shadowed regions are huge, extending more than a kilometer wide. But others span just 1 cm. These smaller "micro cold traps" are much more abundant than previously thought, and they're spread out across more regions of the lunar surface, according to the new research.</p>
Credit: dottedyeti via AdobeStock<p>Still, the second study didn't confirm that ice is embedded in micro cold traps. But if there is, it would mean that water would be much more accessible to astronauts, considering they wouldn't have to travel into deep, shadowy craters to extract water.</p><p>Greater accessibility to water would not only make it easier for astronauts to get drinking water, but could also enable them to generate rocket fuel and power.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers," said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. "If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries."</p>