Storms, Floods Take Toll On Mental Health

Do what you can to combat climate change, and take simple steps to protect your mental health.

Recent hurricanes and flooding undoubtedly took a toll on the mental health of people in its path: stress over property damage, worries about loved ones living near affected areas, the headache of trying to evacuate en masse on gridlocked roadways. And stress doesn't end when the skies clear. Researchers at Tulane University tracked heart attack rates for five years following Hurricane Katrina and uncovered a fourfold increase over pre-Katrina rates, which they attributed to chronic stress created by recovery efforts.

It appears that the mental and physical stress associated with these major storms will continue to worsen, according to a new report from The Climate Institute, an Australian nonprofit devoted to combating climate change.

The report, titled A Climate of Suffering: The Real Costs of Living with Inaction on Climate Change, suggests that extreme weather conditions caused by climate change and the ensuing cleanup and recovery efforts will exacerbate rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. As a result, the authors predict those conditions will lead to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, family struggles, and even suicide. According to one study by Australian psychologists, rates of suicide and "self-harm" jump 8 percent after droughts and heat waves. Children can be among the most affected. A study of elementary school–age children found that one in 10 suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as long as three months after 2006's Cyclone Larry, the second costliest cyclone in Australia's history.

Then there are the broader social impacts. Storms, floods, and droughts tend to push up cost-of-living barometers, such as food and gas prices, which imparts a financial strain on already-stressed residents, and small businesses that rely on goods produced in disaster-prone areas—whether it be farms in drought-ridden areas or oil refineries in the path of a hurricane—have to lay people off if they can't meet their financial commitments. Those can increase psychological problems for people both directly and indirectly impacted by disasters.

Climate change is likely to intensify hurricanes, tornadoes, and other storms, as well as increase flooding, while also increasing the likelihood of droughts. Unfortunately in the U.S., Irene arrived this past weekend to "find a nation with a degraded belief in global warming, a defeated climate bill, and the absence of a federal plan to address an ominously rising number of natural catastrophes," to quote The New York Times Climatewire blog. So it appears that combating climate change, and the ensuing psychological trauma, at least in this country, will be left to individuals, not public policy.

To help combat climate change:

* Save energy and drive less. According to research from the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, an individual consumer's largest impact on the environment comes from seven things: cars; meat and poultry farming; crop production; home heating, hot water, and air conditioning; household appliances; home construction; and household water use and sewage treatment.

For tips on saving energy, see Save Money, Cut Greenhouse Gases: It's Easier Than You Think.

Eat organic
When grocery shopping, demand organic food and stick with mostly fruits, vegetables and grains. When you do buy meat or dairy products, make sure they're grass fed.

* To cope with stress:

Healthy coping strategies for stress will become vital as our climate changes. Follow our tips and suggestions for coping.

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