Like many public health crises, climate change does not affect all Americans equally. In fact, as 2 collaborating psychiatrists discussed with HCPLive, the most historically oppressed populations are facing a greater—and more diverse—brunt of the anxiety borne from climate change.
In an interview with HCPLive during the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2022 Annual Meeting in New Orleans this weekend, a pair of New Mexico psychiatrists discussed the relationship between social determinants of mental health and climate change—particularly among Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
Edward J. Neidhardt, MD, a psychiatrist with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, discussed the burden of “eco-anxiety” in younger US generations; as he noted, long-term decisions like whether to start a family, or even their perspective on the future itself, can be severely impacted by the psychological effect of environmental crisis.
“Many of them have eco-anxiety, and that amount of anxiety has been increasing over the last few years—a lot of it because of climate change and our political situation as well,” Neidhardt said. “As you get anxious, you tend to see things in a more negative way.”
Neidhardt emphasized the need to “empower” affected patients to contribute to solutions against their greatest worries; a solution to eco-anxiety can be as simple as being more active in environmental protection or rehabilitation.
But the issue may be greater in BIPOC communities, where outside contributing factors to mental health—such as poverty rates or lacking resources to care—are coupled with generally worse exposure to climate change.
Mary Hasbah Roessel, MD, a psychiatrist with Santa Fe Indian Hospital, is Navajo. She discussed how she has observed the impact of “historical trauma” on mental health outcomes among BIPOC in both her personal experiences and as a practicing psychiatrist.
“When you have indigenous people who have been displaced, forcibly removed from their homes to go to boarding or residential schools…you have the impact of having to deal with regaining your culture, your values, your family systems again,” she explained.
And, many of the reservations or regions where these populations have been settled into are more adversely impacted by climate change. “It’s a really devastating combination of circumstances,” Roessel said.
Roessel also discussed the unique impact of climate change on the mental wellbeing of indigenous people who historically practiced “living within the land” in their culture.
“Adverse weather events, climate change, all of these issues become more pertinent and devastating for us, in terms of poverty and food insecurity especially,” she said.
Neidhardt discussed the need for broadened perspective on the contributing factors to mental health.
“In dealing with this, we really need to take a broad look at how we cope, and how we teach our patients, both dealing with acute symptoms of anxiety but also if they have PTSD, taking more active treatments…and looking at the other factors such as housing, employment, and all the things that impact people as well,” he said.