Study: As planet warms, mental health issues expected to increase

New research has found empirical evidence that climate change could increase mental health issues in the United States.

» RELATED: We have 12 years left to act on climate change, UN warns

For the study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used data from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the agency’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which includes mental health data on nearly 2 million randomly sampled Americans, plus daily meteorological data from 2002 through 2012.


Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a  report warning that based on current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth will reach a threshold of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (or 1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by as early as 2030.


» RELATED: How climate change could cause 26,000 more US suicides by 2050

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The CDC’s surveillance survey basically asked participants, “How, over the recent period, has your mental health status been?” Nick Obradovich, study author and scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told CNN.

“Exposure to hotter temperatures and higher rates of precipitation in that period produced increases in the probability that people were going to report some mental health problem in that period,” he said.


Obradovich and his colleagues found that shifting monthly temperatures between 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) and 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) to monthly averages greater than 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) related to a 0.5 percentage point increase in the prevalence of mental health difficulties.

» RELATED: Climate change will internally displace 143 million people by 2050, scientists warn

“If this exact change in temperature were generalized across the nation,” Obradovich explained to CNN, “‘that would produce approximately 2 million additional individuals reporting mental health difficulties.’”


Over the past five years, the team found that an increase of just 1 degree Celsius was associated with a 2 percentage point increase in the prevalence of mental health difficulties.


The most vulnerable populations include those with lower incomes, existing mental health issues and women, according to the study.

» RELATED: Suicide rate up 16 percent in Georgia, CDC finds


Obradovich’s work isn’t the first to address a link between rising temperatures and mental health problems.


study published in July in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the shifting seasons may even lead to 26,000 more suicides in the United States by 2050.


If monthly temperatures are 1 degree Celsius warmer than usual, researchers estimate suicide rates in the U.S. will increase by 0.7 percent and by 2.1 percent in Mexico.

“‘Climate change is going to generate winners and losers’—this is a phrase you hear all the time,” study author and Stanford University professor Marshall Burke told the Atlantic. “But for this outcome, it’s all losers. There are no winners. We find these strong linear relationships everywhere when you crank up the temperature.”

» RELATED: A daughter's suicide leaves a grieving father searching for answers


A 2012 study on the impact of extreme heat on morbidity in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, also concluded that climate change may increase heat-related hospital admissions and impact admissions specifically for self-harm, including suicide attempts.

“The most important point of this [new] study is that climate change, indeed, is affecting mental health, and certain populations (women and the poor) are disproportionally impacted,” Jonathan Patz, a professor and director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved with the study, told CNN.

You can purchase the full PNAS study for $10 at pnas.org.

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