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By Lise Alves, Contributing Reporter

MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA – Extreme weather instances are being registered all over the globe. Wide-scale flooding in Pakistan and Brazil, landslides in China, drought and wildfires in Russia and heat waves in the U.S. have left behind death, destruction, and displacement.

Miami Beach, Sea-level rising disasters can lead to mental health problems.
Sea-level rising disasters can lead to mental health problems, photo courtesy of NPS Climate Change Response/Creative Commons License.

Environmental disasters linked to climate change are threatening the lives and futures of more than 19 million children in Bangladesh alone, UNICEF said this month. In a new report, UNICEF says that while Bangladeshis have developed admirable powers of resilience, more resources and innovative programs are urgently needed to avert the danger that climate change represents to the country’s youngest citizens.

Jennifer Atkinson, a senior lecturer in environmental humanities at the University of Washington Bothell, has frequently seen students become emotional, talking about melting ice sheets, dying oceans or sea-level rising. That’s how Environmental Grief & Climate Anxiety: Coping in the Age of Consequences became a seminar at UW Bothell.

The three-credit undergraduate class was aimed at exploring the emotional and ethical issues of climate change, including sea-level rising, as well as helping students develop tools to endure the emotional effects of extinctions, deforestation, and more.

“Our seminar examines not only the anxiety that is our own, but also the psychological toll of climate change on communities in different parts of the world,” she says.

At first, Atkinson believed that her seminar would be a one semester event, and would get very little attention from students. But as the Spring 2018 semester rolled by more and more students popped in to hear what she had to say. This Spring semester, the UW Bothell once again offered the class, this time with most of the seats already filled during the first week.

A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association on climate change’s effect on mental health recognized that ‘gradual, long-term changes in climate can also surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion’.

The report also showed that climate change-induced weather disasters have immediate effects on mental health in the form of trauma and shock.

“Terror, anger, shock and other intense negative emotions that can dominate people’s initial response may eventually subside, only to be replaced by post-traumatic stress disorder,” noted the report.

The impacts of climate on mental health, however, are not relegated to disasters alone. Changes in sea-level water rising, for example, affect agriculture and infrastructure which in turn affect occupations and quality of life and may eventually force people to migrate.

Miami Beach,Many of those who have faced natural disasters due to climate change will develop mental health problems.
Many of those who have faced natural disasters due to climate change will develop mental health problems, photo by Jonathan Shaw/U.S. Army Public Affairs Detachment.

According to APA data people living in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, had more than double the rate of suicide and suicidal tendencies; one in six met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and 49 percent developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.

These effects, say APA professionals, may lead to loss of personal and professional identity, loss of social support structures, loss of a sense of control and autonomy.

High levels of stress and anxiety are also linked to physical health effects, such as a weakened immune system, and stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, and anxiety disorders.

As sea-level water rises around the world, more and more people are faced with the daily challenges of change and may develop metal health issues. Mental health professionals are now racing against time to discover ways to mitigate these negative effects.

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