Got Science? Podcast | Episode 39 How Climate Change Affects Your Mental Health

August 7, 2018

Dr. Joel Nigg, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Oregon Health and Sciences University, discusses his research into the mental health impacts of climate change.

In this episode Joel Nigg talks about:

  • The relationship between climate change and mental health
  • Why community plays an important role in staying mentally fit in the face of climate change
  • How to build systems of resilience and prepare for natural disasters
  • The role of psychiatrists in helping people manage their fears of a warming planet

Timing and cues

  • Opener (0:00-0:54)
  • Intro (0:54-2:43)
  • Interview Pt. 1 (2:43-15:36)
  • Break (15:36-16:13)
  • Interview Pt. 2 (16:13-23:19)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (23:19-23:23)
  • This Week in Science History (23:23-25:31)
  • EC Scientist Shout Outs (25:31-28:47)
  • Outro (28:47-29:30)

Full Transcript

Here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we try to make the consequences of climate change very clear. That includes connecting the dots with weather events people are already experiencing. Like: yes, the flood that destroyed your car when your street flooded at high tide…was clearly and conclusively exacerbated by climate change and sea level rise. Or: yes, the heat wave that sent temperatures into the 100s in your city for days was made more likely by climate change. So drought, hotter temperatures, flooding, crop failure, more extreme storms—these are all the visible signs of climate change. But what about the toll climate change takes on something more subtle and less simple to quantify: our mental health? It turns out that global warming has all kinds of mental health consequences, from the stress caused by extreme weather to the feeling of hopelessness about a hotter, more polluted future.

To help explore how climate change can really mess with our heads, I interviewed Dr. Joel Nigg, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Oregon Health and Sciences University. At OHSU, Joel directs the ADHD program and the division of psychology in the department of psychiatry. His most recent books are Getting Ahead of ADHD, and What Causes ADHD. Joel also does UCS the honor of serving on our National Advisory Board.

I visited with Joel in Portland, Oregon a few months back —which is why there’s a reference to blizzards—to chat about the emerging connection between heat waves and psychiatric problems, the stress of sea level rise, and why all of us at UCS who work on climate change might actually be in excellent mental health.


Colleen: I'm here today with Dr. Joel Nigg. Joel, welcome to the "Got Science?" podcast.

Dr. Nigg: Thank you.

Colleen: You’re the first psychologist that we've had on the podcast and given some of the worries and topics we've covered, I'm surprised it's taken so long, but I'm very glad to be here with you. So, you've been studying ADHD for more than 20 years. Has that been the main focus of your research during your career?

Dr. Nigg: Primarily, yes. I've studied a range of mental health disorders with child development and attention problems and mood problems being the central focus.

Colleen: So, what made you decide to branch out now into the mental health impacts of climate change?

Dr. Nigg: It kind of human extension where I've been interested for a long time in what causes mental illness and mental health problems. We've done a lot of work on both genes and environments and really began to move more and more into this area of social determinants. How does stress and poverty and conflict, how do these things affect mental health? Do they affect ADHD, do they affect child development? And climate change, it turns out is another social determinant of health and so it connects to all these other determinants.

Everything else we study is also related to things in the environment that are affected by climate. So, that caused me to get interested on the scientific side, and then I also have my own human concern as a citizen about what climate change is doing to our population. This is an opportunity to use my expertise to look at a particular aspect of that, which is how does it affect mental health and mental illness?

Colleen: So, I haven't heard of anyone studying the mental health impacts of climate change. So is this a new field of study?

Dr. Nigg: I think it maybe a field reaching a critical mass right now with interest. A lot of this work is directly transferred from previous work on natural disasters because some of this is what do natural disasters do to mental health. We've had now studies on things like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, but there's also work directly on how people are mentally processing the news about climate change or their own observations about extreme weather and what that does to psychological adjustment.

Colleen: Climate change is gradual. It's ramping up now and how does that aspect... or is it because people are becoming more aware of climate change because we're starting to see the effects of it, that it's having an impact on mental health?

Dr. Nigg: That's part of it. Part of what's happening is the scientific models on climate change side have gotten better. It's increasingly possible for scientists to attribute the proportion of impact of a given problem coming from increased global temperatures or increased ocean acidification and so on. So, how likely would Hurricane Katrina have been with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane being what they were 200 years ago versus what they are today? How likely would the massive migration patterns and refugee crises going on have been? And climate change and increased temperatures and so on becomes part of the picture to a degree that's increasingly able to be quantified.

And that I think has raised the visibility of realizing these health effects. The health effects of increased disease vectors, increased infection rates, mosquitoes traveling further north. Those health effects are fairly obvious and fairly measurable, directly related to increased temperatures and climate change. We've also got mental health effects that come from the steadily rising intensity of hurricanes or the rising frequency of 100-year floods and so on, which are a consequence even though individual events are not as accurate as trends, there's still some attribution there. So, we can now begin to imagine and see more clearly these things are directly connected. And I think that increasing clarity of those models has made it more and more urgent to understand these effects.

Colleen: So, how does climate change affect mental health and illness?

Dr. Nigg: Well, it has a lot of effects. Some of the effects are "indirect." For example, through natural disasters, if you have increased intensity of a hurricane or increased probability of a major 100-year flood, then you have increased mental health effects from those disasters because we know a lot about the mental health effects of natural disasters. We know that after a disaster like Katrina, you have an increase in depression, you have an increase in suicide attempts, you have an increase in conflict in families, you have an increase in anxiety. People who are prone to have a psychiatric breakdown are gonna have the breakdown around events like this.

We also know that those mental health consequences, whether it's stress, whether it's addiction and drug use, whether it's depression or suicide or suicide attempt, those effects are not short lived. They don't go away when the media stops covering the storm. They persist for a long time. People stay down for a long time. Their mental health sacrifice or injury, if you will, endures for quite a period of time and years later they may still be suffering from this episode. So, in that sense, we know a lot about that from natural disasters in general, as well as from disasters that had been partially attributed to increased global warming such as Katrina.

And so that's one set of effects, has all these natural disaster effects. If we look globally, we have the mental health effects of being uprooted and migration and those kinds of things, again, from natural disasters and from other secondary causes.

Colleen: So, what other kind of effects are there?

Dr. Nigg: Another kind of effect is from heat. We obviously have harder weather, more heat waves. The extreme heat waves, as we all know can cause people to die who are vulnerable, but they also cause vulnerable people to have psychiatric problems. Aggression and violence goes up in very hot weather among those that are prone to that, suicide attempts go up, particularly notable is that most psychiatric medications make people more heat sensitive because of the biology in those medications. So, among the vulnerable populations that die in heat waves are those people who have psychiatric illness and are taking psychiatric medication. So, there's a direct, serious consequence for that vulnerable population.

Colleen: So, how can individuals and communities prepare and respond to these events?

Dr. Nigg: A lot of this is preparation for extreme events, preparation for heat waves, preparation for floods or hurricanes depending on where you live and what the risk is. The best preparation for communities aside from trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollutions and working on those policies like we all obviously are worried about is to build resilience in the community and one of the best ways to do that is to build social networks. So, build up in your church, in your neighborhood, build up relationships, plans, preparation for events, and in particular, pay attention to what is the preparation when an event occurs for the vulnerable members of the population, for kids, elderly, people with psychiatric illness.

Here where I live, we have a number of people living on the streets some of whom have mental illness, but we also know ourselves and our communities who is vulnerable in terms of mental health and mental vulnerability. We don't always know who is gonna be affected though and so if an event occurs, we're gonna find that some of us who we may not have expected to have a depressive episode or panic attacks may have that experience and having the social circle and be prepared to support that person is an important part of resilience.

Colleen: So, a specific example might be in my community we're preparing and the idea would be to make sure that you have or maintain a close connection with someone so you can observe them and see if they're struggling and step in to help them?

Dr. Nigg: Yes, exactly. Make sure to maintain close connections with those who seem vulnerable but also with everyone because again, we don't know which one of us is gonna feel vulnerable at the time. And maybe, I'm speculating here, but one could imagine having a buddy system or a triple buddy system. The two of us will check on you and the two of you will check on me and provide support if we're struggling, but taking seriously the fact that just like physical health will be affected, mental health will be affected, and social support is one of the best ways to support mental health under a crisis.

Colleen: Does it make a difference to you as a psychologist when somebody comes in that's having an issue, is it important to know if it's from sort of a climate change related… I don't want to say disaster, but some sort of event. Will that make a difference in the way you treat someone?

Dr. Nigg: It's a really interesting question. You know one of the things we don't know enough about right now and I think is a real challenge for the profession, mental health profession, is the nonspecific effects on individuals in the population of the emotional climate of climate change, if you will. The sense of uncertainty, are we headed toward disaster, the confusingness of the intense, it's all become politicized, and so now the whole topic is stressful for many people because it's politicized as well as because they're worried about what's gonna happen. Like young people, we certainly know there's a great deal of concern about their future given some of the forecasts of where we may be headed with climate and weather and viability of our communities.

And so as a clinician, if someone is generally anxious or generally depressed or in despair existentially, do we need to sort it out? How much of this is due to the emotional, social, political, intangible environment and how it's affecting people's sense of well-being? There is a small body of research on this exploring a sense of despair or a sense of hopelessness about the world that people can get into and obviously that can come from any number of sources and it can be distorted or it can be realistic. Part of mental health is being accurate about what's really happening. And so as mental health professionals, what is our obligation to help people get past their distorted perceptions about...which are common because we have so much disinformation and unscientific assertions being made that confuse many people about what's really going on.

You can't cope with something if you don't know what it really is. You can't cope with something if you're not sure of the reality, and so people need to grasp the reality in order to cope positively with it. I think there's considerable debate and discussion in the mental health professions now about what the responsibility is for mental health professionals in this regard and in relation to public education, scientific literacy and so on. So, the treatment may or may not be different, the content may be different. If a person is reacting to a real threat to their future, I really am worried that we won't have a livable planet when my kids grow up versus an unreal threat.

I really am worried about something that maybe is less likely to happen or maybe even when it comes to climate change, I'm not balancing my worry out very well, but how does that become factually based? It's not the job of the therapist to be a climate expert, but it is to help people cope with what's really going on.

Colleen: As you're talking, I'm imagining someone living in Florida on the coast where there's a lot of talk about sea level rise and that much of the coastline is going to be inundated with water and it's going to become unlivable. And I'm thinking with all the disinformation that's out there and that political push and pull about climate change that that almost gives you a double-sided mental health coin to deal with.

Dr. Nigg: I think that's right. I think it can mess with people's minds, and it can make it hard to cope and hard to know how to cope because it's hard to evaluate what you're dealing with. You don't have information that you know what to do with. Good information is available like from the Union of Concerned Scientists, but if someone is confused about what's really going on and the environment is emotionally charged on top of that. So, you can't find out without people getting upset. Then it's a challenge to coping. And then how does the therapist help with that? I think that's a cutting edge area for the mental health field.

Colleen: If you were going to design a research project around this, what would you do? What would you...?

Dr. Nigg: Well, there's so many areas where we need more knowledge. I think one area that we certainly need knowledge on is resilience. Right now we know a lot about resilience in general to disaster and to both personal and community disaster. But as we think about preparing for some of the consequences that are coming or that are already here, how do we build resilience specifically around climate change-related events? One thing that we haven't talked about yet is the uniqueness of climate disasters where the attribution of the cause is ambiguous.

We know that human-caused disasters like terrorist attacks and "natural disasters" like floods create different attributions in our minds. We feel differently about them because their cause is different. And with climate change-related events, a 100-year flood that shouldn't be happening again two years later because it hasn't been a 100 years, but because the temperatures are warmer it is happening again, or a hurricane or a drought that's highly unusual and probably or possibly or definitely whatever the odds are related to climate change. Now, how do we cope with that? Is that natural disaster? Is that a human-caused?

It becomes, again, an ambiguous situation and ambiguity makes coping difficult. And so I think that in some ways we may be facing unique challenges to resilience and coping in mental health here that would be valuable to get more research and more study of to know what the most effective way to cope is. There's also, I think, room for a number of studies around how to help people overcome social conflict around this area. We know a lot about the psychology of environmental protection, and we know a lot about the psychology of ideology. How does extreme ideology form, why are ideologies and political beliefs rigid?

Why is it hard for people to take in information that's contrary to their current beliefs? We know a lot about those kinds of cognitive traps that we all get into. We don't have a lot of research specifically on climate change. We have some, but probably need more in relation to all this. It's not clear that all of the environmental research applies to climate change because it's been so politicized. It's not clear that all the ideology research applies because it's a real environmental unfolding problem. So, I think all of that intersects into the unique way that along with the scale of it that, again, some of this research is happening, but the more of it the better right now.

Colleen: Some of our long-time listeners know, I live in Hull, Massachusetts, which sits on the end of a Peninsula. We've been experiencing the impacts of climate change with every storm that rolls in, and as we're taping this, there's another blizzard happening. And I'm seeing sea level rise first hand and it is stressful. I'm fortunate to live up on a hill, but many, many people living in Hull are on a below sea level, so it floods a lot. So, what advice do you have for me?

Dr. Nigg: Build your social support network locally, build your neighborhood group, build resilience in the community. Be fact-based, respond to real accurate information. I think of the analogy again, you brought up Miami earlier where there's a great deal of controversy among political leaders from what I understand, from what I've read regarding climate change, but none of them are hesitating to use the scientific projections of sea level rise for planning city defenses against the sea level rise.

And so I kind of appreciate that approach where they can have partisan arguments over here, but when it comes to solving problems they're gonna use scientific information about what the actual problem is, and I think that's healthy. It'd be maybe even healthier if they could set aside the partisan arguments entirely, but that's for them to decide. But I think for your community, to say, "It's a practical problem, let's look at the scientific evidence." And positive action is a great mental health response against any threat. Passivity tends to be discouraging, and so identifying as an individual and as a group, what positive action can we take?

I think that's why it's very mentally healthy adaptive for people to work on positive policy around greenhouse gas emission reduction. That's positive action against this threat or this worry. It's very healthy to say, "Well, we can prepare for the next flood or the sea level rise by doing these actions as a group." That's very healthy from a mental health point of view because it's positive action on the problem. And the part that people get trapped in is that sense of despair or worry without positive action, and that's what becomes destructive to mental health. [00:21:00] So, I strongly encourage people, and as individuals, and as groups to build resilience networks to identify positive actions you can take. There are many available.

Colleen: Excellent. And how is your mental health doing?

Dr. Nigg: Mine is doing excellent. I have identified many positive actions and I've built a strong support network.

Colleen: That's excellent.

Dr. Nigg: And I'm paying a lot of attention to scientific information, so I'm well grounded in reality.

Colleen: And you have a fabulous dog which also helps.

Dr. Nigg: And I have a fabulous dog, which also helps.

Colleen: Well, thank you, Joel. This has been great.

Dr. Nigg: Good.

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Credits: 

Early Career Scientist Shout Outs: Shreya Durvasula
This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald