Climate change poses a serious threat to both the physical and mental health of the human population, with children being one of the more vulnerable groups. Until recently, the mental health impacts of climate change have received little attention. This paper provides a current summary of the adverse mental health impacts of climate change from the perspective of Clinical Psychology, while also issuing a call for a new field of study reflecting an overlap between “Clinical Psychology” and “Ecopsychology”. The aims of this new field of study -- referred to as “Clinical Ecopsychology” – include examining pathways leading to the development of mental ill-health in the face of ecological adversity and investigating potential protective and resilience factors that may be helpful in promoting mental health while faced with climate and environmental crisis. Contact with the natural world is recognized as one of these factors.
Climate and environmental stressors associated with mental ill-health discussed in this paper include extreme weather, increasing temperatures, water and food insecurity, droughts, air pollution, profound changes to the natural environment, increased awareness of the threat posed by climate change, and lack of greenness and connection with nature. Also discussed are potential underlying processes through which these stressors impact mental health. These processes include biological, social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral pathways. Groups recognized as being more vulnerable than others to the negative mental health impacts of the climate and environmental crisis are children, people with socio-economic disadvantage or having mental health issues, and Indigenous communities, particularly those living in remote areas.
Both internal and external protective factors are noted as playing a role in how individuals adapt to the climate and environmental crisis and the impact this has on their mental health. Internal factors include self-efficacy, sense of optimism, being informed, social support, and access to pre-disaster resources. External factors include (1) the general resilience of communities, including how prepared the health-care system is to handle disasters, and (2) vicinity or exposure to surrounding greenness and outdoor blue spaces. Increased exposure to natural green and blue spaces have been linked to lower psychological distress, depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental health concerns. Such exposure has also been linked to improved self-reported mental health in urban settings; and – for children specifically -- increased exposure to greenness has been linked to decreased emotional and behavioral difficulties.
This paper is framed around the understanding that while Ecopsychology and Clinical Psychology both have a role to play in furthering awareness of the mental health impacts of the climate and environmental crisis, there is still a need for a distinct research area focused more specifically on this topic. Recommendations for future studies in this field are offered, along with some discussion about how to tap into the protective factors for maintaining or improving mental health in the face of ecological adversity.