Newtown, Connecticut, United States
Red Cross volunteer comforts a survivor of a California fire with fatalities. Photograph by Andrea Booher, FEMA FEMA library–Public Domain
Natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity worldwide. Mother Nature demonstrated her devastating fury in over 300 global events of intense wind, rain, floods, and fire in 2019, and the 2020s should see more of the same. Other issues, such as excessive heat and drought, are causing diminished availability of food and water. Every year, natural disasters already kill an average of 80,000 people worldwide.1 Many thousands more are physically injured, and millions are displaced from homes, in addition to the billions of dollars of structural damage. Some of these calamity locations may be hit once again in the near future, causing even more havoc.
Statistics about these natural calamities rarely mention the overwhelming impact on the survivors’ mental health. The serious extent of this emotional harm has been confirmed over the past decade. When confronted by a dangerous event, many people demonstrate resilience and manage their distress with support of family, friends, and community. Yet up to 40 percent of those at the center of the catastrophe suffer from Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), and a significant number of these develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the long term if not treated within three months. If survivors receive care from professionals who lack trauma-informed training, their psychological problems may become even worse. People who already live in war-torn or politically unstable countries are all the more traumatized when experiencing a natural disaster. Many of those impacted are the most vulnerable—youth, elderly, mentally ill, disabled, poor, and addicted, in addition to first responders.
It is due time to consider the increasing impact of climate change on mental health, which can be very far reaching. These cataclysmic natural events often lead to increased anxiety, helplessness, depression, and difficulties with personal and community relationships and employment. The emotional impact is also frequently related to substance abuse and harm against oneself or others. Physical ailments go hand-in-hand with the psychological ones.
As disasters increase worldwide, people are becoming more fearful and helpless. Those who have already experienced one catastrophe greatly dread the next one. If and when it comes, they are even more emotionally affected. There are also those who suffer from “econ-anxiety,” who may feel threatened when seeing weather warnings on potential seasonal disasters or hearing about environmental stress experienced by individuals in other places. Numerous people confront environmental change, not as a direct threat, but as a global one, as a danger to their very way of life. Although not yet involved with a catastrophe, they are nonetheless afraid of what the future may bring. Vulnerable populations, such as children, typically suffer most from eco-anxiety. Also, the impact of climate change cannot be separated from the other worldwide problems of poverty, disease, displacement, conflict, population growth, decreasing natural resources, and increasing need for food and water.
The role of the IFRC
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which has 192 National Societies worldwide and a century of life-saving service, ranks as a leader in disaster mental health response. The organization includes thousands of volunteers trained in Psychological First Aid (PFA). PFA is recognized as a resiliency-building approach that provides initial emotional and practical support to individuals who experience a traumatic event, including a natural disaster. It offers survivors practical assistance and information to help address their immediate needs and concerns, as well as connecting them to social support systems such as family, friends, and neighbors. It aims to reduce initial distress from the harrowing event and encourage adjustment. PFA is based on the learned skills and caring of a team of volunteers; it is not a counseling service that relies on direct service by mental health professionals.
IFRC partners with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which clearly recognizes climate change as one of the biggest threats facing humanity in the coming decades. In addition to impacting all aspects of society, climate change also increases future uncertainties. The IFRC recently established goals for supporting mental health and psychosocial needs. At the “Act Today, Shape Tomorrow” IFRC International Conference in Geneva this past December, global members actively demonstrated their interest in responding to humanitarian crises. This International Conference has been held every four years since 1867.2
It is believed that 450 million people worldwide are suffering from mental health or behavioral disorders. As noted at the conference:
Mental health conditions are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. Yet, nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental health condition never seek help, due to a lack of access to care and treatment and the stigma and discrimination surrounding it. Every year, 800,000 people die due to suicide, the leading cause of death among young people.2
The IFRC listed several policies that will drive future mental health improvements:
- Ensure impartial access to mental health and psychosocial support, according to people’s different needs, and prioritize prevention and early response;
- Ensure comprehensive and integrated support and care for people with mental health and psychosocial needs;
- Recognize the resilience, participation, and diversity of people in all mental health and psychosocial activities;
- Ensure protection of safety, dignity, and rights;
- Address stigma, exclusion, and discrimination around mental health;
- Implement and contribute to evidence-informed mental health and psychosocial support approaches and interventions;
- Protect the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of staff and volunteers responding to humanitarian needs; and
- Develop mental health and psychosocial support capacity.3
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since 2012, strongly stresses that mental health needs can no longer be an afterthought when crises occur, such as those from climate change.4 ICRC is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of violent situations. It responds to emergencies and promotes respect for international humanitarian law. At the 2019 International Conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Crisis Situations held in Amsterdam, Maurer explained that mental health has too long been overlooked or de-prioritized because of the oft-invisible nature of trauma. War and disasters have a devastating impact on the emotional wellbeing of millions of people, leading to new mental health issues or resurfacing earlier ones. These effects are life-threatening for some individuals.
“In places affected by conflict, one in five people live with some form of mental health condition. That’s three times more than the general population worldwide,” Maurer stated. “Despite the progress that has been made, we know the silencing effect of stigma, and we need to create the right environments where people can tell their stories and be their own advocates.”4
On a more positive note, although these “circumstances may seem extreme, the right intervention at the right time can make the difference for the vast majority of people.”4 This support can promote improved social and community life, employment, and self-reliance. He stressed this is just the beginning of a major initiative. Collectively, much more must be accomplished including: addressing endemic stigma and discrimination; a focus on long-term investment in funding and training to support response; and support for the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of volunteers and staff.
The world is only at the early stages of climate change, with no one knowing what to expect and when to expect it, let alone the best way of responding to the many challenges to come. “People have been concerned and distressed about climate change for several decades, but there’s been little monitoring of those psychological impacts,” Maura stated. “Climate change is an ongoing threat, and the psychological implications are occurring here and now.”4 As he concluded, “This is a moment for urgent action. People in crisis can’t wait any longer.”4
The mental health consequence of climate change is a global issue, which must be immediately addressed with much greater international effort. For many, this requires helping them to develop coping skills to handle disturbing thoughts and feelings about possible threats and their consequences. It also means building individual and community resilience so if or when calamities do occur, the psychological impact is reduced. When a disaster does occur, survivors must immediately receive support from PFA; those who are suffering from acute distress should meet with trauma-informed professionals as soon as possible. People who have already experienced a disaster firsthand, which could be exacerbated by being displaced or living with political violence, poverty, and illness, have to be identified and provided with needed treatment. Mental health needs are frequently overlooked or given impassive support, despite how they may contribute to economic loss, poverty, and societal unrest. It is essential to recognize that human wellbeing necessitates betterment of both the body and the mind.
- Some of the information in this essay comes from the book Disaster Mental Health Community Planning: A Manual for Trauma-Informed Collaboration by this author Sharon L. Cohen MA, Com and Robert W. Schmidt, LPC to be published by Routledge in April 2020.
- World Health Organization. Environmental health in emergencies. Available at: https://www.who.int/environmental_health_emergencies/natural_events/en/ Accessed January 4, 2020.
- Relief Web. Red Cross Red Crescent Conference: Over 160 states gather to address world’s most pressing humanitarian issues. December 12, 2019. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/world/red-cross-red-crescent-conference-over-160-states-gather-address-worlds-most-pressing. Accessed January 4, 2020.
- Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement policy on addressing mental health and psychosocial needs. Power of humanity. December 8, 2019. Available at: CD19-MHPSS-need-policy-draft-zero-resolution-final-EN.pdf. Accessed January 3, 2020.
- International Committee of Red Cross. Mental health needs can no longer be an after-thought in crisis. October 7, 2019. Available at: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/mental-health-needs-can-no-longer-be-after-thought-crisis. Accessed January 3, 2020.
SHARON L. COHEN, MA Com, is a communication and community collaboration specialist with an interest in the mental health field. In April 2020, Cohen and Robert W. Schmidt, LPC are introducing their newly published book Disaster Mental Health Community Planning: A Manual on Trauma-Informed Collaboration by Routledge. The book provides a template for communities to develop a psychological intervention strategy for natural and human-caused disasters to be used in conjunction with an existing emergency medical plan. For more information see www.disastermentalhealthplan.com