A well known gay rights attorney and environmental activist burned himself to death last week to call attention to the assault of fossil fuels on the viability of sustainable life on Planet Earth.
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” David S. Buckel, 60, wrote in an email sent to The New York Times. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Living in a climate ravaged world is dramatically impacting global mental health as policies continue to fall catastrophically short of addressing climate chaos.
Eric Holthaus, a columnist for Slate last January tweeted: “I’m starting my 11th year working on climate change, including the last 4 in daily journalism. Today I went to see a counselor about it.”
Acknowledging his despair of the failure to adequately address climate change, Holthaus announced that he was in “despair” over climate-change inaction: “There are days where I literally can’t work. I’ll read a story & shut down for rest of the day. Not much helps besides exercise & time.” His job, he says, is “chronicling planetary suicide.” (The emotional toll of covering climate change in the Trump era )
Puerto Rico, India & The Innuit People: Climate Change Impacts Mental Health
The effects of climate change are pushing the world’s most vulnerable populations beyond their ability to cope with extreme weather events, persistent drought, and, in the Northern Hemisphere, the thawing of natural habitats.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating hit on Puerto Rico, suicides increased three fold in September and October from the same period the previous year. Visiting the island, Oxiris Barbot from NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported “nearly everyone she met knew someone in their immediate circle or one degree removed who had contemplated or died by suicide. (Why we mustn’t forget the effects of climate change on mental health)
“Exposure to trauma not only affects you in the moment, it affects you for the rest of your life if you don’t have access to support services that will help you develop effective coping skills,” Barbot said.
Why Lost Ice Means Lost Hope for an Inuit Village
Ice melt has further isolated the 300 Innuit residents of Rigolet in Lancet, Canada, who have relied on a “highway” of frozen rivers, streams, and lakes to connect them to places where they hunt, fish, and trap.
The ice cover has decreased some 40% over the last few decades.
“It’s a volatile place climatically,” said Robert Way, a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies Labrador’s permafrost. This climatic sensitivity, combined with Arctic amplification — a feedback loop created when reflective ice melts to reveal dark ocean water — Dr. Way said, had more than doubled the region’s rate of warming compared with the rest of the world.
“And it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
Public Health researcher Ashlee Cunsolo, who directs research at Labrador Institute of Memorial University, has witnessed the significant impact climate change is having on a the mental health of the Rigolet community.
“When you’re in situations when you’re deeply reliant on the environment, even subtle alternations can have huge ripple effects,” she said.
In hundreds of interviews conducted between 2009 and 2014 across five indigenous communities in the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador, including Rigolet, Dr. Cunsolo and her team found that the melted ice, shorter winters and unpredictable weather made people feel trapped, depressed, stressed and anxious, and, in some cases, led to increased risk of substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
Experts say that while the stress wrought by climate change may not, on its own, cause mental health problems, it can rekindle past trauma, worsening existing issues with substance abuse, depression and suicide.
The Alarming Link Between Climate Change and Suicide
In an interview connecting the alarming increase in suicides among farmers in India as temperatures rise, UC Berkeley’s Tamma Carleton noted “warming due to climate change has already caused over 59,000 suicides over the last 30 years. These are deaths that would not have occurred had the warming we’ve observed in the historical climate record not taken place.”
“Without interventions that help families adapt to a warmer climate, it’s likely we will see a rising number of lives lost to suicide as climate change worsens in India,” Carleton said.
The true suicide rate was probably higher, she added, because deaths are generally underreported in India and, until 2014, suicide was considered a criminal offence, discouraging honest reports.
“The tragedy is unfolding today,” she said. “This is not a problem for future generations. This is our problem, right now.” (Suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers linked to climate change, study claims)