Climate change’s hidden threat: grief and trauma

As natural disasters grow worse and more frequent, fear about what the future holds is increasingly entering the therapy room.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 25 Mar 2023, 11:36 GMT
Gwen Nordgren sits by the ruins of her California home two months after a wildfire destroyed it. Natural disasters, like wildfires, are getting worse as the planet warms, and people living in their path are experiencing grief and trauma.
Photograph by Pete Muller, Nat Geo Image Collection

Climate change is drying out rivers, supercharging wildfires, raising seas, and altering the seasons as we know them. These disastrous changes to the environments we depend on for food and shelter are also harming our mental health.

“Anxiety, grief, despair, depression—we’re seeing a lot of that in research. Especially as more people start to [understand] that climate change is a very real phenomenon,” says Derrick Sebree, a psychologist at the Michigan School of Psychology. 

A recently published UN report noted that mental health cases are resulting from extreme weather and rising temperatures. It also warned that these extreme conditions are only going to worsen. In 2017 the American Psychological Association argued that trauma experts and therapists will be almost as essential as cooling centres and raised homes to help people cope with a changing planet.

Here’s what to know about what climate change is doing to our mental health and what can be done to treat it.

PTSD—the aftermath of trauma 

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the storm and resulting floods killed nearly 2,000 people and destroyed nearly 300,000 homes. In Katrina’s aftermath, a study of 400 people found a quarter experienced post-traumatic stress disorder for two years following the storm. 

Therapists treating natural disaster survivors say mental health issues may not always appear immediately.

“Two to three years later, somebody may think they were doing great, and then boom they’re not,” says Dix Moore-Broussard, a therapist who experienced Katrina and treated those who suffered PTSD from it. 

Along with the typical symptoms of PTSD—nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety—Moore-Broussard says she saw patients who had “anticipatory anxiety,” intense worry about what might happen in the future. And symptoms could come on unexpectedly or be prompted by weather reminiscent of hurricanes.

“I’ve worked with kids who couldn’t handle a thunderstorm,” she says. 

This kind of trauma can disrupt normal brain function, according to a recently published study that tracked the mental health impacts of wildfires. People who had been impacted by wildfires struggled to focus and process their thoughts.


“In the past four or five years, as climate change impacts have become less abstract and more real, eco-anxiety has gone from affecting people who were very environmentally minded to being a mainstream issue,” says Thomas Doherty, a psychologist specialising in climate change.

Following a record breaking heat wave in 2021, people in British Columbia were up to 40 percent more likely to report feeling climate anxiety. 

Among young people, anxiety about how climate change will shape the future is a particularly pressing problem.

A survey of 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries found 59 percent were very worried about climate change and 84 percent were at least moderately worried.

Negative feelings were made worse, the same survey showed, when people felt like their governments were ignoring or doing too little to address climate change. 

Heat and violence

High temperatures have been associated with violence, alcohol abuse, and suicide. Heat can make us uncomfortable, thirsty, and exhausted. It can also make it harder to get a good night’s sleep, an issue associated with poor mental health. 

“It’s a source of stress, you know you’re uncomfortable,” says Susan Clayton, an expert on climate change and psychology at the College of Wooster. “If someone bumps into you, you might be more likely to jump to: ‘that jerk did that on purpose.’”

As climate change makes heat waves like those seen in the Pacific Northwest in 2021 and Pakistan in 2022 more common, it could result in more suicides. One 2018 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change projected that future increases in hot weather could contribute to more than 20,000 excess suicides in the U.S. and Mexico over the next 30 years. 

“The human health threat is large,” says study author Marshall Burke, an environmental policy expert at Stanford. “I think it’s one of the biggest motivations for doing anything about climate change at all.” 

While a hot summer day may descend upon an entire city, not every part of the city feels it equally. 

“Urban populations and low-income populations are typically at higher rates of exposure to extreme heat,” says Sebree. “You can't get away from it unless you have resources.”

Studies show that marginalised neighborhoods experience hotter temperatures and have less access to shade.

Climate grief 

Many victims of climate disasters have seen their homes destroyed in an instant, but others are slowly watching the environment around them transform beyond recognition.

Like with “eco-anxiety,” scientists have coined a new phrase to capture this unique type of grief—solastalgia. The condition has been described as a type of homesickness felt without ever moving. 

To document how these changes undermine a person’s wellbeing, scientists spent a year conducting 72 in-depth interviews with Canada’s Inuit community. In Indigenous communities like these where people rely on hunting and fishing to survive, and where families have sown roots for generations, climate change is making home look foreign.

Rigolet, where interviews were done, sits on the far eastern coast of Canada, a sea away from Greenland. Ninety-eight percent of the study’s participants reported a deep love of their land, and many of the interviews revealed environmental changes harmed mental and emotional health.

Such sudden, profound changes leave communities in upheaval. Another study of Indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic found that suicide rates were “alarmingly high” in the Arctic.

Healing from climate trauma 

Psychologists are taking climate change seriously. The Climate Psychology Alliance helps patients find local therapists who have signaled an interest in treating climate-related disorders.

The World Health Organisation has encouraged countries to integrate mental healthcare into their policy responses to climate change. 

Increasingly, mental health providers are using nature in their prescriptions. Everything from hiking to the Japanese art of forest bathing is helping treat people whose illnesses stem from the outside world. 

“People experiencing climate anxiety tend to care about the environment and can benefit from spending time outdoors,” says Clayton.

Studies show spending time in nature improves not only mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, but also physical conditions like asthma and high blood pressure.

“[Outdoor therapy] helps people understand their connection to the environment and nature,” says Sebree. “It adds to wellbeing, an improved sense of self, this idea that you’re a part of something. For some folks there’s a spiritual element. It offers a depth of connection to themselves, other people, and creatures.”

Connecting with a therapist or even a friend to share climate change concerns can also help. 

“A lot of people experiencing stress from climate change report they’re not always taken seriously,” says Clayton. “Just being validated is important. For somebody to say yes, you’re right to worry about this.”


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