The hidden toll of climate change

A new study urges media to pay more attention to the damaging effects of an unpredictable climate on our mental health.

Man in glasses looks at image of globe.

Media are missing out on opportunities to tell hidden stories about how climate change is affecting our mental health and how people are already adapting, says a U of A public health researcher. (Photo: Getty Images)

The media needs to do more to report on the mental health impact of climate change, according to a new public health study out of the University of Alberta.

Climate change is adversely affecting mental health in a number of direct and indirect ways, says Breanne Aylward of the School of Public Health. Severe climate events — such as wildfires, floods and extreme heat — can initiate anxiety, depression and PTSD in some people. Even those who aren’t as directly affected by climate change, especially the young, can suffer anxiety, sometimes known as “eco-anxiety,” just from exposure to the news.

Media outlets often report on climate disasters, but there’s a valuable opportunity to enhance coverage by also focusing on the ongoing adaptation measures that communities implement in response, says Aylward.

“We know climate change is already impacting mental health. Focusing on the protective factors, interventions and coping strategies people use is really important for prompting action to reduce risks in the future.”

Aylward’s study, published in the journal Environmental Health, looked at how the press in Canada and the United States covered climate and mental health in more than 1,000 articles in English and French between 2016 and 2020. In the first year, few outlets gave the topic much space, she says. But coverage increased by 2019 before dipping again in 2020, likely because of the COVID pandemic.

And though media reports about climate and mental health fluctuated somewhat, there was a dramatic spike in September 2019, says Aylward, likely driven by events such as the Canadian federal election in October, the international Global Week for Future climate strikes and the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

“More news outlets were talking about mental health during climate events, but it wasn’t a sustained conversation,” she says. “The volume of news coverage on climate-mental health issues starkly contrasts with overall climate change reporting.”

We know climate change is already impacting mental health. Focusing on the protective factors, interventions and coping strategies people use is really important for prompting action to reduce risks in the future.

Breanne Aylward

Breanne Aylward
(Photo: Supplied)

Only about half of the articles that referred to the effects of climate change on mental health mentioned adaptations or response strategies to prevent or reduce detrimental mental health outcomes, she adds. “We found that pretty surprising.”

When the reporting did include interventions or coping strategies, most focused on “individual lifestyle or behavioural strategies.” Fewer identified institutional or government-led interventions, nature-based approaches or technological solutions.

For more general ecological grief and anxiety, strategies could include establishing spaces accessible to community members, such as climate cafés, where people can share their emotions, says Aylward.

Researchers who focus on climate and mental health need to communicate their findings “beyond academic papers” to the media, she adds, while combating misinformation. 

Toward that end, the U of A launched a new research initiative last month called the Climate Change and Health Hub — the first of its kind in Canada — pulling together more than 30 researchers from across faculties in the health sciencesnatural and applied sciences and social sciences and humanities.

Included in the hub’s mandate is evidence-informed advocacy that includes communicating research findings and adaptation strategies to the public. Studies in the U.S. have shown that the best way to inspire people to take action on climate change is through a health lens. Framing climate change as a public health issue, says Aylward, could engage a wider audience and underscore that climate change action also has health benefits.

As for the press itself, she recommends more coverage of “a broad range of interventions and coping strategies,” which could help the public and policy-makers manage the mental health consequences of climate change.