In Your Opinion: Government Must Address Mental Health Side Of Climate Change

By Nehal Bajaj.

It is hard to truly understand the feeling of dread that hundreds of other New Jersey families face when all they can do is stand by and watch as hurricanes rip through their homes and the businesses they have worked all their lives to build.

Politicians and environmental advocates in NJ have argued the environmental and economic effects of climate change, often channeling these efforts through climate education and justice initiatives such as the New Jersey Climate Change Education Hub. And yet, we must begin to acknowledge that climate change’s impacts extend beyond infrastructural damage, financial trouble, or physical damage to us. As we strategize our response to the climate crisis, we need to recognize that the mental health consequences of these catastrophes demand action.

According to the World Health Organization, “The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)] revealed that rapidly increasing climate change poses a rising threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being; from emotional distress to anxiety, depression, grief, and suicidal behavior” (June 2022). In a systematic review, The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review, Paolo Cianconi (Department of Neuroscience at Catholic University) and his team concluded, “With specific reference to flood victims, 20% had been diagnosed with depression, 28.3% with anxiety and 36% with PTSD” (Cianconi et al. 6).

After Hurricane Ida, the tropical storm that hit NJ in September 2021, I helped organize an event with the 4-H/Middle Earth Student Ambassadors for Community Health called the “Rediscover Your Community” project, which was geared toward economic revitalization that hit Bound Brook and Somerville after the disaster. After talking to small business owners in the area, I heard about their personal experiences with the storm and how their whole lives had drastically changed. It was then that I realized that we misanalyzed the main problem source—while economic revitalization was still a crucial part of the rebuilding plan, the community was also in dire need of mental health services to soothe the climate anxiety they were experiencing. Local governments continue to prioritize economic development after climate disasters rather than focusing on ways to mentally and emotionally support the rebuilding of a community in the aftermath.

Climate anxiety is a serious condition that can lead to panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability, weakness, and sleeplessness but scientists and researchers are just beginning to understand the unique biological indicators and the science behind climate psychology (Dodds 222). The lack of information and understanding around climate anxiety itself causes community members to misinterpret these feelings.

After going through major life-changing disasters, most people have reported huge decreases in confidence levels and anger toward government officials and loved ones. As they grapple with the fear of the unexpected, the lack of closure or an unidentifiable “villain” worsens this climate anxiety on top of other financial and familial issues. These feelings of helplessness coupled with a lack of understanding continue patterns of inaction and stagnation with climate justice and dissuade both adults and youth from taking serious action to address climate change.

The responsibility falls squarely upon the government and our local politicians to help their constituents recover after these disasters and to help prevent them in the first place.

While New Jersey is one of the first states to add climate education to its state curriculum, it is critical for climate change and mental health to remain part of the statewide discussion. Funneling our hopelessness into action, grassroots organizers should focus on advocating and lobbying for mental health resources in the climate justice atmosphere to state officials. Addressing this issue on a state level will ensure direct representation and impact for communities in need.

In an attempt to address this phenomenon, in March 2022, Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA-5) introduced H.R.975, “Expressing the mental health impacts of recurrent climate-related disasters on youth” in the Energy and Commerce House Committee. This resolution reduces the cost and increases access to mental health services after climate-related disasters, providing direct funding to schools to help children and families cope with mental health effects while also supporting the expansion of funding for climate education and community-wide vulnerability assessments.

As we take action to address the impacts of unprecedented climate-related disasters that are happening more frequently, we must not only work toward securing a liveable climate for future generations, we must invest in support systems for ourselves. People are already suffering the physiological impacts of climate stress and desperation, and we must build infrastructure to support them now.

For a start, we can demand the enactment of H.R. 975 by putting pressure on our federal elected officials, and pushing for similar legislation at the local level in New Jersey through local community organizing. Consider talking to your local state representative or speaking at local town hall events to bring this to the attention of your county representatives.

While long-term political actions can take time to fulfill, coming together in support of our communities to get organized is a start to begin to combat this issue.

Nehal Bajaj is a Franklin resident and Junior at Central Jersey College Prep Charter School.

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