Laurie Silver of Lafayette takes in what remains of her cousin’s condo in the aftermath of the Marshall Fire on Dec. 31, 2021, in Louisville. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
From apocalyptic disasters like the Marshall Fire, which destroyed over 1,000 homes, to soaring temperatures and high ozone levels making comfortable summer days a distant memory, to Colorado’s rapidly deteriorating air quality leaving us wondering whether it’s safe to be outside, it is clear that the effects of climate change are a threat to our health and safety.
Worse yet, there seems to be no end in sight, as experts are predicting further drought, polluted air, and wildfire conditions in every corner of the state that look like a tinderbox ready to ignite and cause devastation with even the smallest spark.
But beneath the visible impacts such as wildfires, which force people to take immediate action for their safety, lies a danger that is invisible yet no less insidious to the well-being of Coloradans — climate change is wreaking havoc on our mental health.
Every day, in every corner of the state, people are confronted with the terror of not knowing whether today is the day that a fire destroys their home, leaving behind cherished memories and permanently dismantling the sense of safety that a home represents. Given the existential dread that climate change forces us to confront, it’s no wonder that our mental health is deteriorating at the thought of this crisis that threatens our way of life.
Research about the impacts of climate change on mental health has yielded some unsettling data. In a 2021 report, the American Psychological Association found that over 75% of Americans “are concerned about climate change, and those who are most ‘Alarmed’ (about 25% of the U.S. population) nearly doubled from 2017 to 2021.”
As a licensed therapist who specializes in treating climate anxiety, I’ve seen an increase in the amount of stress my patients express about the state of our climate and its impact on them, their families, and their communities. It’s impossible to overstate how dire these impacts are on our mental well-being.
Communities that experience traumatic climate conditions, such as the Marshall Fire in Boulder County last December can see their mental health suffer greatly. Patients who have directly experienced climate-related disasters often show symptoms associated with PTSD, including flashbacks, triggers, nightmares, avoidance, depression and numbness. This affects their ability to function day to day — to parent, to work, to develop relationships, to thrive.
Studies show that climate impacts like heat and drought can contribute to anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, violence, suicide, and depression.
Some patients I see are parents grappling with a myriad of complex emotions and concerns: guilt, immobilizing anxiety, grief, anger, and themes around privilege. The uncertainty parents feel about the future of the planet that their children will inherit along with the hopelessness of not knowing whether a disaster will threaten their kids’ health and safety manifests in numerous mental health issues.
Climate change is having an impact on the mental health of all Coloradans, but poorer communities and communities of color in Colorado are more exposed to climate impacts like high heat, threat of wildfire, and high ozone. Studies show that climate impacts like heat and drought can contribute to anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, violence, suicide, and depression. It’s important that people in these communities be provided with increased access to mental health services to address the disproportionate impacts they face.
While the research shows that Americans are stressed out about climate change, it also shows that we can resolve some of this climate anxiety through therapy and investing in creating resilient communities.
Many pieces of legislation to help communities become more resilient against climate change and its impacts passed the state Legislature this year, including wildfire mitigation and disaster preparedness programs that will make communities safer when climate disasters occur. Providing communities with the funding to adequately prepare for wildfires, high heat, and drought is a great start to addressing anxiety around potential disasters and other climate impacts.
Colorado also made unprecedented investments in mental health this year. The Behavioral Health administration, which will help coordinate care and funding streams for that care, was created and hundreds of millions of dollars were directed towards all levels and kinds of treatment.
Though progress has been made, Colorado needs to continue the work to give people access to mental health services and improve the resiliency of their communities. Our leaders at the local, state, and federal level need to tackle this challenge head on both by combating climate change with aggressive action and ensuring that all Coloradans have access to the mental health resources needed to deal with the increased stress brought on by the climate disasters threatening our communities.
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