Climate change harms children’s mental health and this …

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(MENAFN – The Conversation) With record-breaking heat waves, forest fires and floods, 2021 could be the year we finally wake up to climate change. According to the latest assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change, the effects are now “widespread, rapid and intensifying”. Many of the effects are irreversible and changes in the oceans, ice sheets and sea levels will last for thousands of years.

In August, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported that half of the world’s 2.2 billion children are at “extremely high risk” from the effects of climate change. Since then, more than 230 health magazines have published a joint editorial calling for urgent action to combat the “catastrophic damage to health” caused by climate change.

Despite these warnings, surprisingly little has been written about the psychological consequences of climate change for children.

In a new research paper, we show that climate change is already having an impact on the healthy psychological development of children around the world. These effects begin before birth and extend throughout development and will accelerate as climate change progresses.

Devastating development

Although awareness of climate change and mental health is growing, most of the attention has focused on the issue of climate change concerns – sometimes referred to as “eco-anxiety” – and the effects of individual acute stressors such as extreme weather events. While these issues are important, mental health (for both good and bad) is not the result of individual events, but rather the result of complex chains of causation that begin before birth and unfold throughout development.

We need a broader conceptual framework to understand the relationship between climate change and mental health. A development-related career perspective is particularly suitable for this. Developmental perspectives are widely used in psychology, psychiatry, and related developmental sciences to understand the origins, history, and outcomes of mental health across the lifespan.

A long-term development perspective recognizes the importance of early detection and prevention of climate change risks for children’s mental health. (F. Vergunst), author provided

The approach is based on the observation that most mental disorders begin early in life, that disorders are the result of genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors – including the interplay between them – and that the timing, severity, and duration of stressors early in life can have lifelong effects on mental health and wellbeing.

Development approaches are well suited to investigate the effects of complex, interactive and persistent stressors such as those occurring in the context of climate change. This can be illustrated with a few specific examples.

Children’s vulnerability to climate change

Childhood is a time of extremely high susceptibility to development. Even before birth, acute environmental pollution – such as hurricanes, forest fires, floods and heat waves – can traumatize the mother physically and mentally. These experiences can harm the developing fetus and make the unborn child more susceptible to disease for the rest of their lives.

Heat waves can affect sleep quality, learning, cognitive test performance, and high school graduation rates. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Frank Gunn

Subacute stressors such as summer heat waves have been linked to an increased risk of obstetric complications and premature birth, which are known risk factors for several serious psychiatric conditions.

From birth to the age of five, children are very susceptible to infectious diseases, environmental toxins, heat stress and dehydration. Physical health problems can delay developmental milestones in areas such as cognition and language, and these interact with and increase psychological vulnerability.

By middle childhood (six to twelve years of age), children remain vulnerable to acute and chronic environmental stressors and become better able to understand climate change and its expected effects. This increases their ability to experience stress and fear of the consequences of living on a warming planet.

Youth on a warming planet

Major physiological, hormonal, and social changes mark adolescence and many teenagers feel overwhelmed by the challenges of this time. The maximum age of onset for any psychiatric disorder is 14.5 years, and about half of all disorders are diagnosed before the age of 18.

Climate change increases the heat in this phase of the pressure cooker’s life by increasing the frequency, intensity, and duration of weather-related stressors such as drought, heat waves, cyclones, and floods. Exposure to such events has been linked to an increased risk of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, all of which affect long-term mental resilience.

Climate change can exacerbate the stress associated with the physiological, hormonal, and social changes of adolescence. (Unsplash / Li-An Lim)

Heat waves alone can disrupt sleep, learning, cognitive test performance, and high school graduation rates. These factors can hinder the healthy transition into adulthood and affect long-term social and economic prospects.

In other words, climate change creates new risks for children and adolescents because it can trigger a cascade of abnormal developmental changes that interact in complex ways and undermine healthy mental maturation throughout life.

Protect children

The best way to protect children from the effects of climate change is to aggressively contain global warming and overwhelm them with adapting to the damage already done. This may seem obvious, but the continued failure of national governments to work together to tackle climate change has crushed optimism and nibbled on hope.

Environmental stressors like hurricanes, forest fires, floods, and heat waves can cause trauma. (AP photo / Steve Helber)

Many young people feel helpless and betrayed and are angry with the adults for failing to prevent the climate crisis. You can and should be empowered to participate in adaptation and response planning. Effective education about climate change is of central importance. It can help children cope with this and lay the foundation for a new generation of committed citizens and effective leadership.

Around 85 percent of the world’s children live in developing countries, which are most vulnerable to climate change when they are the least responsible. Acting quickly and effectively to reduce this burden is therefore an important international and intergenerational justice.

No time to waste

Healthy psychological development underpins the future social, economic and human capital of societies, but is undermined by unchecked climate change. The damage begins before birth and cascades through development, with each unsolved challenge setting traps for the next.

Rapid and effective action to reduce these risks is an urgent practical and moral imperative and an important investment in the health and well-being of present and future generations of children around the world. There is no time to waste.

Fast facts on mental health

  • Mental disorders affect more than a billion people worldwide each year.
  • They are a major contributor to the global burden of disease and rank first in terms of years of disability.
  • One in four people in high-income countries has a mental health problem every year.
  • People exposed to extreme weather events like cyclones and forest fires are at increased risk for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and suicide.
  • 15-60 percent of children and adolescents who have been exposed to such events suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
  • Most children with mental health problems, even in high-income countries, are not treated.


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