It’s understandable that Santa Rosa artist Bill Gittins is concerned about forecasters that say there will be less rain over the next six months.
A third year of severe drought means longer summers and a higher risk of devastating wildfires. Gittins and his wife survived what they describe as the “real” terror of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, before a wind-driven clash devoured their home and artwork, destroying thousands of homes. and killed 22 people, including a neighbor.
With drought looming, Gittins is dealing with his own version of climate concern. He wasn’t as emotionally hurt by the fire as some neighbors, he says, but he’s still triggered by the arrival of warmer weather. He and his wife try to ease their worries about another potential fire by closely monitoring apps like Watch Duty, which gives real-time information about wildfires in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties. Is.
“We’ve always packed our things,” he says. “Everyone in the North Bay has a bag.”
But even Bay Area residents who haven’t suffered such damage feel that as the mountains turn brown and the Sierra snowpack shrinks to its lowest level in nearly 70 years.
The American Psychological Association describes climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, as the fear of environmental destruction. In the Bay Area, it’s easier to believe the scenarios of days of doomsday when wildfire smoke chokes the air with particulate matter and turns the sky an apocalyptic orange. Even before the onset of COVID-19, Bay Area residents were learning about wildfire shelter in place—the essential Spare the Air Alert and the day when Air Quality Index maps turn red and purple. .
“It’s been getting drier and drier over the years, and it’s become very stressful,” says Monica Sen, a community college instructor who lives in Santa Clara. “I have asthma, so I feel this fear when it’s summer. There will be fire, and the air will be bad.”
Robin Cooper, a San Francisco psychiatrist and member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, says the worrying sight of the burned Sierra forests makes her feel like it’s no longer safe to bring her children to her beloved mountains. She knows that she is not alone. One of his clients wept over the smoke of the forest fire, saying, “I should never have kept my son. I can’t protect him.”
Even the idea of a pleasant California summer is complicated, says David Spiegel, a Stanford psychiatry professor. Wildfires now routinely cut off access to beloved vacation spots, while smoke makes it unhealthy to be outside for a time.
“The danger of fire and smoke in the air, not being able to leave the windows open, or the fear that the fire will destroy your home or even kill you is obviously a world full of stress. And there’s tension,” he says.
Climate concern is not just an abstract concept, say Spiegel and others. The mental health effects of climate change have become the focus of study by researchers and national policy experts, part of a larger effort to prepare for public health emergencies caused by weather-related disasters, from hurricanes to heatwaves and droughts. are as.
At Stanford, economist Marshall Burke has developed formulas that show links between warmer weather and rising global temperatures, and aggression, depression, and suicide. In a 2013 meta-analysis of more than 50 scientific studies, he and Solomon Siang, director of UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory, found that global warming is linked to an increase in violence, from fights and attacks to outright civil war.
A 2018 study showed that expected temperature increases by 2050 could lead to an additional 21,000 suicides in the United States and Mexico. That study also found an increase in online use of depressive language by people during warmer climates. While Burke said that hot weather is not a direct motive for suicide, psychiatrist Alyssa Apple, who co-leads UCSF’s task force on climate crisis and mental health, said it disrupts sleep and increases stress and mood. affects.
“When[heat]lasts for days, the effects accumulate,” Appel says. “There are spikes in hospital ER admissions not only for health problems but also for psychiatric emergencies. Heat also affects psychotropic drugs, so they don’t work as well.”
Such observations coincide with data showing that heat in the United States contributes to more deaths each year than any other climate-fueled threat, including hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, In which the loss mostly falls on small children, elderly and poor people. Those who have pre-existing medical conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In a study awaiting publication, Burke also described how wildfire smoke affects people’s behavior and emotions. Smoke fuels online searches for filters and masks, but people also express unhappiness due to school closures, the inability to recreate or disruptions to other normal activities.
That crisis has hit young people especially hard: nearly 60% of respondents to a British survey of 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 in 2021 were extremely concerned about climate change; Half said they felt sad, anxious, angry or helpless. And concern about the “slow-moving calamity” of drought is particularly acute among farmers and indigenous peoples, whose livelihoods, identity and culture are closely tied to land, Cooper and Jesse Bell, Water, Climate and Professor of Health said. University of Nebraska.
But anyone can be susceptible to a condition known as “solstalgia,” which Cooper describes as “deep sorrow and sadness when one’s home no longer brings a sense of relief and solace.”
Pediatrician Bonnie Hamilton says her sense of security was shaken by the burning of the 2017 Atlas Fire near her Fairfield home. Three years later, when her family had to be evacuated as a fire ripped through southern Solano County, she was able to quickly grab family photos she boxed in 2017.
“I never held them back,” Hamilton said. “You would think that when it happens once, it can happen anytime.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, round-the-clock support, information and resources to help. Reach Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Find here three tips for dealing with climate anxiety.