The link between climate change anxiety and alcohol and drug abuse
The impact of climate change arouses strong feelings among GenZ young people and older generations alike. People are starting to feel anxious, terrified, angry and grief-stricken – they also feel impotent, guilty, hopeless and depressed. Around the world, mental health is suffering and some are turning to alcohol and drugs in order to cope.
What is causing climate change anxiety?
In the face of compelling evidence of climate disaster, people are struggling to adjust. Maladaptive coping methods such as using drugs and alcohol to escape from the news of natural disasters and impending chaos around climate change, are now becoming more extreme: violent demonstrations, suicidal ideation and substance abuse are often seen.
Different people are affected in different ways. Factors such as age, level of exposure, location and vulnerability produce a variety of responses.
What is the link between extreme weather and mental health?
Evidence is emerging to show links between severe weather events caused by global warming, and serious mental health issues. However, more research is needed. The majority of reports on the impact of climate change appear to focus on economic, political, social and medical aspects rather than mental health.
A 2021 report by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, London on the impact of climate change on mental health, stated that less than 1% of 54,000 medical research papers that mentioned climate change from 2010-20 also mentioned mental health.
There is little doubt, however, that alcohol and drug abuse and behavioural addictions such as gambling have increased in the last two years. Irregular weather patterns and climate change anxiety as well as the Covid pandemic have a lot to do with that, and specific climate disasters are certainly big factors too.
People with addiction have a disease that justifies using a substance or behaviour (alcohol, drugs, gambling) no matter the consequences – climate anxiety delivers the perfect justification.
A post from one Reddit user said: “I ended up in a psychiatric ward in 2014 because of a psychotic episode brought on because of anxiety over climate change. I was crying all day because of the fear of imminent death by starvation, murder, thirst, etc. caused by climate change.”
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What is “doomscrolling?”
Doomscrolling refers to the act of continuously scrolling through negative news, even though this information is distressing and depressing. More and more people are obsessively exposing themselves to bad news around climate change and the environment without the ability to stop or step back.
The constant frightening images activate the brain’s fear circuits, making you feel chronically anxious and afraid, which in turn can lead to the development of dangerous coping mechanisms such as substance abuse.
Physical symptoms of climate change anxiety
Almost half of young people worldwide say climate change anxiety is affecting their daily life. The physical effects of anxiety can include:
- obsessive thinking,
- upset stomach,
- muscle tension,
- loss of appetite
- sleep problems.
Being exposed to excessive negative content can exacerbate depression in those predisposed to it.
With all the information we need at our fingertips 24/7, it’s no wonder people are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of bad news. Young adults are now seeking advice from forums such as Reddit, asking fellow posters for advice on how to stop consuming negative media.
Others are desperately looking for help on how to deal with the anxiety that has developed as a result of their doomscrolling habit.
While it might doesn’t involve substances or gambling, doomscrolling itself can become an unhealthy obsession, which can eventually lead to internet or social media addiction if not addressed.
This demonstrates exactly how people use unhealthy strategies to cope with uncomfortable feelings and emotions, and how quickly these obsessions can escalate.
How is climate change affecting mental health?
Conversations such as: ‘should I plan to bring children into this terrifying world?’ and ‘when will the city I live in be flooded?’ are commonplace today, when twenty years ago they would have seemed paranoid.
However, feeling terrified can be unhelpful because it tends to paralyse us, so we become unable to take positive action.
A few years ago, the world was still in denial about climate change, even as the evidence mounted. But now, that denial seems like the minority voice. Events have accelerated and the evidence is too overwhelming to ignore. The fires are too ferocious, the winds are too tempestuous, the floods too devastating.
Some psychologists are suggesting that former ill-judged disinclination to act has now been replaced by exaggerated and equally inappropriate responses such as climate depression, climate rage and sheer panic. Are we catastrophising the situation too much and is this leading us into self-defeating behaviours, such as substance abuse?
Evidence of the growing impact of climate change anxiety
Depression, anger and even feelings of panic are entirely reasonable responses to such an existential threat. More and more people have these feelings. A survey by Yale and George Mason Universities over several years found that in 2009 eighteen per cent were alarmed by climate change and in 2018 that number had risen to twenty-nine per cent. A 2021 survey has found that: ‘A majority of Americans (64%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming.’
When so many people are feeling concern, there is likely to be an increase in mental health problems.
A report by American Psychological Association and EcoAmerica 2017: ‘Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance’ states that climate change takes a significant toll on mental health. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, suicidal ideation doubled, one in six people met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and 49% developed mood disorders such as depression.
There is also evidence that air pollution and extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes can contribute towards higher rates of suicide. It is already known that rates of suicide increase with rising temperatures, with one study finding a rise of 1% per 1C increase in heat above a certain threshold.
The impact of climate change on general health
A Canadian woman is said to be the first patient in the world to have been given a diagnosis of climate change, according to Canadian newspaper the Times Colonist. The elderly patient was diagnosed with the unusual condition after the heatwaves worsened her frail health. It’s understood that the woman lived in a trailer without air conditioning, which exacerbated the risks of extreme heat.
In the DSM-5 (the American Psychiatric Association’s ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, Fifth Edition’), under “Problems Related to other Psychosocial, Personal and Environmental Circumstances” the following conditions are listed: exposure to disaster, war, or other hostilities. We shall probably see more diagnoses that match the Canadian one.
Climate Change and Substance Abuse
The Bartlett faculty at UCL in a 2021 report warns that: “Substantial evidence shows that high temperatures and severe weather events are linked to mental health issues.” And what does it mean for addiction and those who work in the field? A great deal. “Worsening mental health due to climate change will bring huge additional cost.” No doubt much additional cost will be for addiction treatment.
We may have moved away from climate denial but, it seems that people still can’t process the truth about the crisis and have constructed new coping mechanisms.
In moments of extreme fear and stress, the primitive brain tends to respond in freeze, flight or fight mode. Nowadays, our not-so-primitive brains increasingly seem to veer towards a joint or a stiff whisky. The uncertainty, insecurity and reduction of face-to-face contact in the digital age, are perfect conditions for drug use and excessive drinking.
Climate change and drug abuse in young adults
A recent survey by Time Magazine shows that 75% of young people around the world are frightened of the future because of climate change.
Many studies indicate that the young are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues around this. Perhaps they are more prone to catastrophising or less able to process their understandable concerns and anxieties than adults. The common perception is that most young people don’t need an excuse to abuse drink and drugs but for any that do, then the terrifying prospect of a superheated world is as good as they could hope. Catastrophising the future may be a popular pastime for the young, but how do you not catastrophise a seemingly imminent apocalypse?
In Australia recently, young people with direct exposure to bushfires reported significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, and more drug and alcohol use, than those not directly exposed.
Elsewhere, a doctor has recently claimed that young adults are turning to crystal meth because they believe they have no future on a planet doomed by climate change.
Significantly, a lot of young people are now making their voices heard in protest. This can only be good for the planet and good for their own mental health.
Managing the Crisis
What can we do to mitigate the effects of climate disaster on addiction rates? By now, most countries have well-established plans for dealing with substance abuse. But it is not the method of treatment that needs addressing (though there could be improvements). Indeed, merely treating the symptoms will not solve this problem.
There is something to be said too, for increasing people’s resilience, perhaps getting them more involved, bringing a sense of ‘mission’ and purpose so that they become more inspired to rise to the challenges ahead.
The real problem, however, and not for the first time, lies in the roots of both climate change and addiction.
The truth, however inconvenient, is that both climate change and substance abuse are symptoms of a world where there is a need for people to focus on care – care for those around them, the world around them, and themselves.