Climate change and mental health: concerns about disasters and environmental loss, impact and implications





Assigned to session

0.07 Theaterzaal, 28-09-2023, 15:15 - 16:30

Field of research

Complex PTSD, comorbidities, grief
Public health, prevention, early interventions
Crisis, disaster or pandemic related

Overview of symposium

The probable mental health impact of climate change is a global reason for concern. Thissymposium explores its nature and perceivable implications. Rachel Williamson problematizes“the index trauma” by highlighting three intersecting types of traumatic events/responses. HannahComtesse discusses “ecological grief” as a response to environmental change. Michel Dückersaddresses the broad mental health impact of disasters – some types will be more frequent andsevere due to climate change – in different populations and country contexts. Francis Vergunstpresents a conceptualization of the mental health burden of climate change as well as challengesfor prevention and adaptive action. Verena Ertl illustrates how climate change concerns arealready affecting today’s treatment practice.


No participants found...

Ecological grief as a response to environmental change: a mental health risk or functional response?

Dr. Hannah Comtesse



The perception of the environmental impact of climate change is becoming a lived experience for more and more people. Several new terms for climate change-induced distress have been introduced to describe long-term emotional consequences of anticipated, actual, or past climate change-related environmental changes, with ecological grief as a prime example. Although the mourning of the loss of ecosystems, landscapes, species and ways of life is likely to become a more frequent experience, there is a lack of conceptual clarity and systematic research efforts with regard to such ecological grief. In this contribution, we will explore the concept of ecological grief and differentiate various types of ecological loss. We will introduce ways by which ecological grief may pose a mental health risk and/or motivate pro-environmental behaviour, and delineate aspects by which it could be differentiated from related concepts of solastalgia and eco-anxiety. In conclusion, there is a lack of conceptual clarity and empirical studies on ecological grief and its possible impacts on mental health (risks). The contextualization of ecological grief within the field of bereavement research could help to systematically follow an agenda for future research and thus deepen the understanding of climate change-related psychological phenomena beyond the mental health impacts of exposure to disasters.


Hannah Comtesse

Psychotherapists’ attitudes towards and perception of climate change-related concerns during treatment

Dr. Verena Ertl



Previous research indicates that climate change has already a negative impact on mental health. However, it is unclear in how far this is already evident in treatment practice. The aim of this study was to identify psychotherapists’ experience with patients with climate change-related thoughts and feelings as well as their attitudes towards and handling of this. In an online survey with N = 571 psychotherapists in Germany (both licenced and in training), we collected data on therapists’ sociodemographics, attitudes, practical behaviors, and experience with patients with climate change-related concerns. A total of 72% of psychotherapists reported that they had experienced patients raising concerns about climate change during treatment. Also, 20% stated that at least one of their patients sought treatment because of such concerns. Patients with concerns about climate change were mainly young adults with a higher education; primary diagnoses were mostly depression, adjustment disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Therapists with and without experience significantly differed in their assessment of functional impairment related to the concerns and of the necessity to target the concerns in treatment. The majority of all therapists indicated that they would use established techniques to deal with the concerns. Our findings indicate that the mental health impact of climate change is already affecting patients in psychotherapeutic care. Regular care could be improved by providing resources on assessing and addressing climate change-related concerns in practice.


Verena Ertl

The long-term mental health impact of climate change: what we can learn from a meta-analysis of epidemiological disaster studies

Prof. Dr. Michel Dückers



Climate change is widely considered a serious threat to human health across the world. Apart fromgradual changes in temperature, ecosystems and biodiversity, the frequency and intensity ofdisasters is expected to increase. The long-term population impact is difficult to determine. In thiscontribution we present a meta-analysis of internationally available longitudinal epidemiologicaldisaster studies. We conducted a systematic search in multiple literature databases and appliedpredefined inclusion and exclusion criteria. The protocol was registered in PROSPERO (108528). Weextracted data on disaster exposure type (e.g. floods, earthquakes, shootings, volcanic eruptions,hurricanes; natural versus human-made), mental health outcomes (e.g. PTSD, depression, anxiety,suicidality, substance abuse), population (adults or children), study quality, time (months sinceoccurrence) and country income level (low to high). A total of 60 studies was included. We testedseveral multi-level random and fixed effects models. In a model, combining disaster year, exposuretype, population, study quality, time and country income level, the last two had a significant mentalhealth impact (p < .05). If climate change is indeed accompanied by a future increase in disasters,this will substantially affect the long-term mental health of populations, and more profoundly inmiddle and high income contexts.


Michel Dückers

A dual-continuum model of mental health and wellbeing for global climate change

Dr. Francis Vergunst



Climate change is undermining the mental health and wellbeing of populations across the globe,but the scope of these functional domains are poorly specified. In this review, we use a dualcontinuum model of mental health – which places mental disorders and subjective wellbeing onintersecting axes – to help distinguish the distinct but overlapping domains that are affected, andhow they relate to and interact with one another. We find that strong empirical support for the linkbetween acute climate hazards such as storms and floods and the mental disorders domain (e.g.,PTSD, anxiety, and depression). These impacts occur predominantly through direct exposures thatresult in traumatic stress. Chronic climate hazards and indirect exposures can also affect rates ofmental disorders, but the causal pathways are harder to demonstrate empirically, and much oftheir initial burden will be attributed to lowered subjective wellbeing. In practice, all types ofclimate hazards and exposure types will increase risk for mental disorders and reduced wellbeing,but on different time horizons. We note that negative psychological responses related to climatechange (e.g., eco-anxiety) are more strongly linked with reduced wellbeing than mental disordersand likely constitute a relatively small portion of the overall burden. Taken together, mentaldisorders and subjective wellbeing are conceptually and empirically distinct but overlappingconcepts, with different antecedents and mental health endpoints, and both are needed tounderstand and measure the true burden of climate change.


Francis Vergunst