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Weather, Climate Changes Multiply Mental Health Concerns

Global climate change has been a hot topic for debate for decades; however, new studies bring another perspective to the table concluding that global climate change has increased severe weather incidents and as a result have had a negative effect on mental health. These detrimental effects could influence the rates of depression and anxiety.

"The globe continues to warm at between 0.15 to 0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, as determined conclusively by the United States National Academy, the National Academies of all of the Great Nations and the leading scientific societies in the U.S. including the American Physical Society, The American Chemistry Society, the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America and 30 plus more," said Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University and author of the books "Dire Predictions" and "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars."

While it can not be proven that climate change increases erratic weather events, some experts believe that climate change may be a factor.

"I do believe as the planet is warming we are seeing an increase in heat waves and drought severity," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said. Although, Anderson expresses that one weather event can not be blamed on climate change, it is more long-term.

Other researchers take a slightly different perspective, suggesting that climate change can manifest itself on a more localized level. These manifestations can be in the form of an extreme storm or weather situation, like Hurricane Katrina, or just simply in weather patterns, according to Thomas Doherty, President of the American Psychological Association's Environmental Division and licensed psychologist with the Lewis & Clarke Graduate School.

Although not all weather experts agree, some believe that there has been an increase in the severity of weather in recent years.

"This last year was the warmest on record for the U.S. Increased drought in large parts of the U.S., more destructive hurricanes, record losses of the Arctic sea ice, larger and more intense wildfires in the western U.S. and more intense, extreme rainfall events are all symptomatic of the way that global warming and climate change are loading the random weather dice toward more frequent and intense weather events," Mann said.

It is these severe weather events that concern mental health professionals as recent studies now link severe weather events to major mental health consequences.

"Severe weather does have an effect on mental health," Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and Chair of Environmental Studies Susan Clayton said. "It can be a source of trauma."

The most vulnerable to these mental health effects are those who are already compromised. The biggest concerns are those who already have an illness, poorer populations, those who lack resources or those living in marginalized situations, Doherty explained.

"There is a clear class-based dimension. Across the globe, the poorer countries are more vulnerable than the richer ones," Clayton said. "Within countries, poorer people are more vulnerable. This is partly because poorer people tend to live in more ecologically vulnerable areas, and partly because richer people can afford to protect themselves and compensate for negative effects of climate change."

Despite vulnerability, severe weather can induce an increase in anxiety disorders, generalized worry, depression, existing interpersonal issues such as substance abuse, family issues and even intergroup conflict according to Doherty and Clayton.

Another common mental condition brought on by severe weather is known as "solastalgia."

"Solastalgia is an emotional distress associated with the loss or displacement of an environment that is psychologically important," Clayton said. This can include the loss of connection to one's home environment or involuntary migration, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other mental health effects can be provoked by severe weather in the days, months and years after the event including, post-traumatic stress disorder, reactions following anniversary dates, prolonged depression and even domestic violence. Over time, without proper treatment, these issues can become chronically set," Doherty said.

"People can adapt to changing conditions, but it is also true that mental health can show significant and lasting impacts of environmental changes," Clayton said.

While certain population demographics are at higher risk for some of these mental health effects, when severe weather hits, everyone in that community is impacted on a mental health level to some extent.

A prime example is Superstorm Sandy that hit the New Jersey coastline last October. During this storm, residents, businesses and even caretakers were affected by the storm and, as a result, everyone with the ability to help was less able to do so because they too were affected, Doherty explains.

"The resilience of a community is really impacted and the ability to cope is overwhelmed," Doherty said. "Even the systems that serve the people become overwhelmed, too."

As research efforts continue, researchers urge people to help battle the effects that severe weather can have on mental health by being be proactive when preparing for severe weather and to paying attention to localized watches and warnings.