Has all this 90-degree-plus weather made you a little cranky lately? A little quicker to anger? Maybe you worry about your crops, or the fish in your favorite stream, if we face another drought. Personally, I can get sucked into feelings of hopelessness just thinking about the monumental tasks of reducing our carbon footprint and creating a more sustainable society.
Since I finished researching and writing our new Climate and Mental Health page (which you should really check out!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how climate change affects our state of mind. Did you know that extreme heat, increased wildfire smoke, drought, and even the threat of climate change itself can all be major stressors? That the repercussions of extreme weather events and the alteration of our most cherished landscapes can lead to anxiety, chronic stress, depression, substance abuse, increased levels of domestic violence, and even suicide? Heat and wildfire smoke actually affect brain chemistry, with the former increasing stress hormones and the latter causing brain inflammation.
Luckily for my own emotional well-being, I’ve also been learning how we can use the challenges we face in positive ways. Climate change can be a catalyst for improvements in the mental and emotional health of our entire community, including the well-being of Missoulians who are most at risk. Heat and wildfire smoke take a much larger toll on homebound senior citizens, on those who live in substandard housing or are homeless, on those who live in neighborhoods with few trees, and on refugees who have been forced to flee their homes due to drought, sea level rise, or other changes. People with existing mental health problems and other disabilities are at greater risk, too.
The time to start is now. Because if you think the weather is uncomfortable this week, consider this: if current carbon emissions trends continue, by 2100 summers in Missoula will resemble summers in Yucaipa, California – a city near the Mexican border where the average summer temperature is currently 92 degrees. Missoula’s average summer temps hover around 80 degrees, but that’s quickly changing. (You can see the future summertime trajectories of 1,001 U.S. cities, all based on the latest climate science, on this neat interactive map.)
Improving the mental and emotional health of all Missoulians is a worthy goal. So is reducing our carbon footprint so we don’t become as hot and dry as southern California. Isn’t it great that the twin ideals of better health and a more sustainable, equitable Missoula go hand in hand? I’m starting to feel a little less cranky already.
What about you? How are our changing summers affecting your emotional health? Are you a health professional who's seeing impacts on your patients? What concerns you most about climate change and mental health? Let's keep the conversation going! Comment on this post, or send your thoughts and experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to share a wider range of views in an upcoming blog post.
(If you missed the link at the top, don’t forget to check out our new Climate and Mental Health page for more information on what you can do to make Missoula a healthier and more resilient place. You can also check out our overall strategies for a Healthy Community.)
Terri Nichols is a graduate student in the University of Montana's Environmental Studies program. She's working as Climate Smart Missoula's Summer Smart Intern this year thanks to a Brainerd Conservation Fellowship.