Material for Substance Abuse & Climate Change Discussion

Material for Substance Abuse & Climate Change Discussion

The Hidden Mental Health Impacts Of Climate Change

This June 2015 article on highlights the impact that climate change can have on mental health of individuals and communities.

The possible impact of climatic changes and dislocation on the incidence and prevalence of substance use disorders

Summary of a report published in August 2012 by Psychiatry Online Italia on the impact of climate change related population displacement on mental health and substance abuse.

BEYOND STORMS & DROUGHTS: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change

American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, June 2014

The report paints a picture of a future with more:

  • Substance abuse: A 2012 study found a spike in cases of substance abuse among Canada's Inuit community, which is gradually losing its hunting and fishing-based livelihood to shorter, milder winters and longer, hotter summers.
  • Mental health emergencies: Rises in temperature are associated with a rise in the use of mental health services, not only in traditionally warm-weather regions but also in cooler countries like France and Canada. "Higher temperatures seem to provide an additional source of stress that can overwhelm coping ability for people who are already psychologically fragile," the report notes.
  • People experiencing "solastalgia": It's what people feel when they're suddenly dislocated from their home after a storm or a wildfire, for example. "However, solastalgia has a less sudden or acute beginning due to the slow onset of changes in one’s local environment," the report adds.
  • Loss of autonomy and personal identity: Climate change will have an impact on many of the daily details about our lives that we take for granted, like seasonal changes and the stability of our roads, bridges and sidewalks, the authors write. "The desire to be able to accomplish basic tasks independently is a core psychological need, central to human well-being ... and may be threatened for people who have difficulty leaving home due to dangerous conditions."


Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges

American Psychological Association, 2009

Among the topics addressed in the report are:

  • Perceptions of global warming and climate change risks, including people’s tendency to discount the likelihood of future and remote events and the role of culture in how people conceive of and respond to risks.
  • Human behavioral contributions to climate change, such as population growth, energy use, and consumption, and the psychological and contextual drivers of these contributions.
  • Psychosocial and mental health impacts of actual and perceived climate change, including stress, anxiety, apathy, and guilt, and interventions to promote coping, adaptation, and healthy responses to climate change.
  • Social and community impacts of climate change, socioeconomic disparities in climate change impacts, and ethical and social justice implications of climate change.
  • Psychological barriers that limit individual and collective action on climate change.
  • Empirically-based approaches to understanding the nature and determinants of behaviors that affect the environment and the development of interventions to alter such behaviors.


Mental Health and Stress-Related Disorders

Climate change affects the psychological well being of a person indirectly, and can be some of the most devastating effects in terms of human suffering, and the most difficult to address and quantify.  The severity of mental health impacts following extreme weather disaster depends on the degree to which there is sufficient coping and support capacity during and after the event.  Extreme weather and other climate related events can have a variety of psychological impacts on communities and individuals, from acute traumatic stress to chronic mental disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep difficulties, social avoidance, irritability, and drug or alcohol abuse. Chronic mental disorders can also lead to additional negative health effects.

Health Impacts

  • Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding, create stress.  Prolonged exposure to stress can result in a decline in mental health.
  • Prolonged heat or cold events create chronic stress situations that can cause or exacerbate health problems, particularly in populations already suffering from mental health or stress-related disorders
  • Extreme weather events lead to damage or loss of property, death or injury of loved ones and can increase the incidence of mental health problems and stress-related disorders
  • Extreme weather events and sea-level rise cause the displacement of people, particularly already vulnerable members of society, increasing the risk of mental health and stress-related disorders

Mitigation and Adaptation

  • Strategies to better understand the gaps that currently exist in mental health infrastructure, resources, and services to ensure that adequate resources are allocated to enable services to prepare and deal with challenges associated with climate change. 
  • Help for individuals in identifying their mental health needs and increasing their awareness of resources within their communities 
  • Eradicating the stigma attached with mental health so that individuals will seek mental health care services following extreme weather and other climate-related events 
  • While some adaptation strategies may prevent the displacement and migration of some communities, socioeconomically disadvantaged communities may not be able to effectively implement those strategies, threatening overall mental health and well-being.

Research Needs

  • Understanding of how psychological stress acts synergistically with other forms of environmental exposures to cause adverse mental health effects
  • Developing mental health promotion and communication programs related to proposed climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies

 For more information, please visit the chapter on Mental Health and Stress-Related Disorders in A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change (Full Report) (4MB) .


Climate Change and Mental Health

Union of Concerned Scientists, Sept 14, 2010

“When a wildfire destroys your home or business, when a flood washes away your crops for the season or your entire neighborhood, when severe drought stresses your family’s daily life, the psychological effects can be devastating. People coping with severe weather conditions can experience serious mental health symptoms, including posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.”


Americans' Mental Health is Latest Victim of Changing Climate

This January 2014 op-ed on discusses the impact of climate change on mental health.

Warming World, Potent Poppies: Rising carbon dioxide levels lead to higher concentrations of opiates in poppies

Erik Ortlip, ScienceLine, August 3, 2009

 “Greater concentrations of carbon dioxide in a warming world may have a drastic effect on the potency of opium poppies, according to a new study. While this increase might mean more morphine available for legal pharmaceutical uses, the painkiller is also the main ingredient in heroin. The current crop of poppies is twice as potent as those grown at carbon dioxide levels seen in 1950, says Lewis Ziska of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory. If projections hold, the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide will increase morphine levels three-fold by 2050 and by 4.5 times by 2090.”

Coca Production, Deforestation and Climate Change

Elisa Botero, State of the Planet, 3.24.2010

“Colombia is the number one cocaine producer in the world. Hundreds of hectares of coca bush, the main component of cocaine, are planted each year to produce this popular recreational drug, consumed mainly in Europe and North America.  The local social, economic and environmental impacts of illicit drug production have been discussed in detail in numerous academic studies and governmental reports.[1]  Colombia’s coca bush cultivation, however, has a subtler, insidious global effect: it significantly contributes to climate change as tropical rainforests, natural carbon sinks, are destroyed to give way to illicit crops.”


How the International Drug War Is Helping To Warm the Planet

Andrew Breiner,, Feb 5, 2014

“The prohibition and attempted eradication of drugs can be a nightmare for the climate and environment. Particularly in Latin America, the fight against drug production has led to deforestation, widespread contamination with toxic chemicals, and contributed to a warming climate.”


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US Govt Agency)

SAMHSA DTAC prepares states, territories, tribes, and local entities to deliver an effective mental health and substance abuse (behavioral health) response to disasters


Discussion Questions