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Scientists explore how climate change may affect mental health

By Courtney Barrow, AccuWeather staff writer
October 16, 2017, 3:43:46 PM EDT

On the surface, climate change is taking its toll on the environment itself with rising temperatures, disappearing coastlines and destroyed ecosystems.

These changes can have an observable effect on people's physical health, but what about their mental health?

A study from March found that climate change can affect mental health following a major disaster, such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, or potentially have longer-term effects. While data is in its early stages, researchers say that over time, rising temperatures can lead to increased aggression, violence and depression in a region.

Dr. Susan Clayton, one of the professors on the study from Wooster College, said that while many long-term effects can only be speculated, it's likely that researchers will find more negative consequences.

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In this Sept. 13, 2017, photo, debris surrounds a destroyed structure in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

"I think that the psychological impacts are at this point still less well-known than the geological impacts," Clayton said, "but I think they’re going to affect more of us and there’s every reason to think that they’re going to be pretty serious."

Climate change can potentially have effects on both individual and community levels. On a more individual level, someone can become aggressive due to a rise in temperatures, have strained familial relationships, suffer from a loss of personal or occupational identity or suffer from depression or trauma.

For communities at-large, stressors can come from several sources, such as a lack of resources. Instability in an environment, from weather events like droughts or flooding, can lead to further conflict. These kinds of threats are mounting, enough that the U.S. government acknowledged earlier this year that climate change is a threat to national security.

Scientists are slowly beginning to unearth the consequences of climate change. A separate study released several months ago from University of California, Berkeley, found that a rise in temperatures was linked to almost 60,000 suicides among farmers in India over a 47-year period. Occupations that rely heavily on the environment are at the greatest risk for negative mental health effects over time.

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Alan Campbell walks in front of the lot where his home used to be after massive wildfires destroyed much of his neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, Oct. 10, 2017. (Photo/Instagram/@zane_sk_zeus)

There are many other potential effects that haven't been studied as well yet, Clayton said, like the long-term effects on children, or how environmental refugees will feel if they have to leave their homes.

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"I think we rely on the environment to be a fairly stable and secure kind of thing," she said. "You get used to certain patterns of weather and things you can take for granted about the place that you live."

"How does it feel when something that we expect to be stable starts to change?"

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