Tackling climate change impact on mental health

A suite of resources addressing the impact of climate change on mental health has been launched by Sydney Children’s Hospital Network and NSW Health to help support people through the current environmental crisis.

A team of clinicians across SCHN compiled the resources after noticing the very real, and increasing, affects climate change was having on the patients and families they were treating for mental health conditions.

Cybele Dey, Staff Specialist in Psychological Medicine and Renee Sandells, Clinical Psychologist in Pain Medicine collaborated to compile the resources with the Climate & Mental Health Committee (CMhC, formerly PMCCMHWG) and said they were hoped to not only support people’s mental health and wellbeing, but also empower them in making a change.

“Most Australian children and teenagers in the community are worried about climate change but often aren’t sharing that with mental health professionals – and they aren’t alone, this is being felt by adults, particularly healthcare professionals too,” Cybele said.

“We wanted to create a hub of valuable information for people to help them adapt and respond to climate change in healthy ways because we know that finding a way to cope with their climate change concerns can play a really big part in improving mental health and wellbeing.”

“We also know that the health sector is responsible for seven per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions, and generally, health workers want to be part of the solution, and stop being part of the problem. This gives them a way to do that.”

The resources address topics including psychological coping strategies, emotional and trauma support, heat and mental health, understanding anxiety and climate change (for young people) and supporting children’s wellbeing, with content tailored specifically for health professionals, general public, children and young people, parents and carers and teachers and school counsellors.

With the effects of climate change being felt far and wide, the aim is to also bring awareness to the complex, underlying causes contributing to declining mental health. These causes range from warmer weather, to financial pressures, through to physical illness and sense of security.

“On unusually humid and warm days, it’s harder to sleep, there is more physical conflict, more hate-speech online and more children and teenagers come to our Emergency Departments in serious mental distress,” Cybele said.

“Other direct effects come from the natural disasters we are experiencing like the floods, fires and drought, all of which have long-term impacts on children’s mental health due to both the emotional trauma of these events and the financial pressures on families, especially in rural areas.”

“This really underpins how climate change impacts those least responsible first and worst. When families have to move and normal life is disrupted during a child’s development, this impacts a child’s sense of safety and security, and this is particularly crucial to their mental health and wellbeing.”

Cybele says while the situation is extremely serious, empowering people from a young age to have their voices heard can make a big difference.

“When children and young people express serious concern and are supported to take action based on their own values, they can have an improvement in their function and wellbeing and the impact of this is two-fold because their actions are also contributing to improving the environment,” Cybele said.

In compiling the resources, the Climate and Mental health Committee also recognised and acknowledged the significant impact climate change was having on the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the important role they play in addressing the climate crisis moving forward.

“For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, being unable to protect their country from the harms of colonisation, and witnessing the destruction of song lines and important cultural sites can raise their distress to an even more profound level,” Cybele said.

“We need to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are the traditional custodians and have cared for the country we now call Australia for millennia without causing climate change. Their ways of knowing and being need to be included in climate action.”

The committee are now focussed on spreading awareness about the resources and encouraging people to talk about climate change and its impact on mental health to increase education around how to address, and improve, the issue. It is a simple step that everyone can take.

“We can all start taking meaningful action on climate change and help create a better future for children.”

The resources are part of SCHN’s investment in the developing a sustainability framework, which will aim to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 - consistent with the NSW Health Climate Policy Change Framework.

To see the full suite of mental health and climate change resources, visit the NSW Health website.