The Climate Anxiety Issue

Mental health and climate change are often discussed as crucial but separate issues. As extreme weather events become more frequent and impact communities, researchers in Asia are beginning to shed light on a phenomenon called climate anxiety.

AsianScientist (Mar. 23, 2023)

By Hannan Azmir and Marinel Mamac

Twenty-six year old Cara Patalinghog was busy stocking ready-to-eat food, charging her phone and power bank, moving important documents upstairs and monitoring early signs of flooding outside her home in Philippines’ Pasig City—all while anxiously watching a video livestream of a nearby river. The winds of Super Typhoon Noru had intensified from 85 kph to 250 kph, a speed that can uproot trees, damage houses, and disrupt electrical and communications services.

That night, as scientists at the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) cautiously published weather bulletins, Patalinghog and other residents of Pasig, Marikina and Quezon City in the country remembered Typhoon Ketsana from 13 years ago, which killed almost 300 people and left their homes submerged in muddy water for months. It took survivors many years to rebuild their lives.

For people in Southeast Asia, climate change is becoming less about melting ice caps and starving polar bears and more about stronger and more frequent typhoons, flooding, extreme rainfall, intense heat and droughts, as well as their devastating aftermath. Researchers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University found that the region is at risk of rapid land sinking amidst rising sea levels.

As scientists and policymakers continue to measure the fallouts of climate change in terms of agricultural and infrastructural damage, lives lost and economic impact; a growing community of Asian researchers is beginning to study a less visible fallout —climate anxiety.

Unraveling Climate Anxiety 

Climate anxiety is an emotional reaction such as fear, anger, anxiety or frustration to the effects people experience due to climate change. But feeling these emotions is completely normal, said John Aruta, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Sunway University, Malaysia. Aruta studies the psychological responses to climate change, and in a recent paper explored how Filipino youths experience climate anxiety.

“Climate anxiety is an emerging area of research,” Aruta told Asian Scientist Magazine. So far most of the studies on this topic have been primarily done in Western countries including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. But now, researchers in Southeast Asia are also paying attention to the problem in the region, where natural disasters and extreme weather events will increase in the coming years.

A paper published in 2018 found that in the central coastal regions of Vietnam, which are poor and prone to typhoons, floods and landslides, instances of post-traumatic stress disorder were high at a worrying 10 percent of the population sampled. The authors warned that this percentage could rise as the impact of climate change intensifies in the area.

In a recent global survey about climate anxiety across ten countries including two from Asia, Filipino youth were found to be the most anxious. “One of the reasons for that is that we’re one of the most climate change prone countries in the world,” said Aruta. The country experiences an average of 20 typhoons every year.

Constant threats of losing their homes and entire livelihoods plant anxiety and fear in communities who experience extreme weather events regularly. “Previous typhoons have affected my life severely,” Patalinghog told Asian Scientist Magazine while recalling the flooding and significant property damage the typhoons have caused. “I harbor trauma from these experiences.”

Growing evidence shows that it is important to connect the dots between climate change and mental health, so governments and local communities can be better prepared. Devastating effects of climate change can have a lasting impact on people, highlights research by Renzo Guinto, chief planetary health scientist at Sunway University, Malaysia, and director of the Planetary and Global Health Program of the St. Luke’s Medical Center, Philippines. “People’s mental and emotional health, their confidence, their outlook in life, their zest for life—all these things will be affected by climate change, especially among young people,” Guinto told Asian Scientist Magazine.

Although climate anxiety carries negative associations, like an illness that needs to be treated, Guinto and Aruta emphasize that it shouldn’t be seen as something abnormal. “It’s a normal reaction to an actual threat, which is climate change,” said Aruta.

Guinto explained that the emotional response to climate change lies on a spectrum. Some people may experience mild distress, fear and anger towards the changing environment, while others who are directly impacted by the more damaging consequences will exhibit intense, almost paralyzing emotions that would need immediate intervention.

A Ticking Time Bomb 

Researchers studying the mental burden associated with climate change say that the subject needs more scientific attention. “What gets measured gets addressed,” argued Guinto. “It’s not just about the numbers; it’s about how people are actually experiencing it in their cultural and geographic context, and how they are coping so far.”

In their paper on climate anxiety in the Philippines, Aruta and Guinto enumerate several factors that can shape how specific communities experience climate anxiety. One is age: older people have survived more typhoons in their lifetime, which may affect how they perceive climate disasters. In contrast, younger generations have contributed much less to the climate crises but are set to suffer its effects in the coming decades.

Another factor is geographic location: some regions experience more climate disasters than others, which impacts who will experience heightened climate anxiety. “Some people love it when it rains, but for me, my anxiety level peaks at every new low pressure area, every storm,” said Patalinghog.

There are also differences based on types of exposure. Some individuals are direct survivors of climate disasters, while others might have an indirect experience like watching videos of submerged communities in the news or reading first-hand accounts on social media. Some, like Patalinghog, can be both.

Moreover, the type of weather events can also influence people’s mental response to them. Extreme weather events such as flooding may affect people differently compared to slow-onset events like the loss of forests and rising temperatures.

Understanding the lived experiences of people in all these different, intertwined and sometimes clashing contexts is the first step to developing interventions, which Guinto pointed out is the next arena for research.

Interventions in policy, psychology, behavior and adaptation can enhance people’s mental and emotional resilience to the deepening climate crises. But the clock is ticking. As climate change triggers more frequent and disastrous weather events, there is a greater risk of higher levels of climate anxiety and other conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, increased rates of addiction, and hopelessness.

The Missing Connection

Fundamentally the problem, according to Guinto, is that climate change is not present in mental health discussions and mental health is not present in climate change discussions, as much as they should be. Some institutions are beginning to look at this missing link.

In June 2022, the World Health Organization released a policy brief highlighting how climate change can lead not just to emotional distress, but also the development of new mental health conditions or the worsening of already existing ones.

The brief cites five recommendations for governments: integrate climate considerations with mental health programs, integrate mental health support with climate action, build upon global commitments, develop community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities, and close the large funding gap for mental health support.

A Clearer Tomorrow 

Identifying the root causes of climate anxiety remains at the forefront of work by Asian researchers like Aruta and Guinto. Going forward, they hope to gather data on climate education and its impact on climate anxiety.

“We’re planning to look at how climate change education is being taught in the Philippines, and gauge whether that explains why it contributes to Filipinos’ climate anxiety,” said Aruta. After all, a fear-based curriculum would have a vastly different effect on students’ general perception and psychological response to climate change compared to a hope-based one.

Guinto is keen to emphasize the need to harness the emotions associated with climate anxiety into an actionable cause. “Young people today are all anxious, maybe even angry at their leaders, and they’re speaking up,” he remarked, “but I think the challenge is also how to convert that anxiety and anger into agency and action.”

For Patalinghog, climate anxiety is driving her family to seek a better outcome. Patalinghog’s sisters have moved out of their family home in Pasig City, while the rest of the family are planning to move to higher ground soon. Though this entails moving away from work and their community, the higher altitudes mean less risk of flooding—and less angst. For those who aren’t as privileged as the Patalinghogs, frequent upheaval of their livelihoods and an impact on mental health will become more commonplace.

Aruta believes that it is still possible to turn things around. For him, more research on climate anxiety can lead to more interventions that can empower people and communities to adapt to climate change, both physically and mentally. Patalinghog agrees. “Helping people deal with not just climate change, but also climate anxiety, can transform communities in the long run.”

This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, January 2023.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Chin Yi Ting/ Asian Scientist Magazine

Marinel is passionate about science, culture and stories that matter. She has a Master’s Degree in Communications, Major in Applied Media Studies from De La Salle University, Manila.

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