SFU researcher publishes first study on climate change’s effects on mental health

Heat dome caused more British Columbians to experience climate anxiety

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An orange sunset
PHOTO: James Day / Unsplash

By: Nathaniel Tok, Peak Associate

SFU health science assistant professor Kiffer Card and a team of health and psychology researchers from the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance recently concluded a study outlining the effects of climate change on British Columbians’ mental health.The research is the first of its kind in BC to examine how climate change, especially the heat dome in 2021, contributed to the increase of worry, anxiety, and distress among British Columbians. 

The Peak reached out to Card to find out more. 

“Our study is among the first to study these worries using a natural experiment and validated scientific measures of anxiety,” Card stated. “We see peoples’ mental health is being directly impacted by changing natural landscapes and environments.”

In 2021, the research team posted an online questionnaire for British Columbians over the age of 16. 850 participants filled out the questionnaire before and after the heat dome so researchers could see how the heat dome affected their perceptions around climate change.

“Most British Columbians were impacted by the 2021 heat dome, most agreed that the heat dome made them more worried about climate change,” Card said. “The average level of climate anxiety across British Columbia increased by approximately 13%.”

Card believes this research helps verify the idea that planetary health and personal health are related. On the other hand, it is concerning as to whether the mental health system can support the increasing number of British Columbians experiencing climate anxiety.

He points out anxiety from climate change can affect people’s livelihoods. “Worries about climate change are influencing where people want to live, what jobs and industries they work in, whether they want to have kids, and how they are going to take care of their loved ones.” 

The research team continues to monitor other climate events to see how they affect people in different regions in BC and whether a cumulative and lasting effect on mental health is present.

Researchers hope their work will raise awareness of climate change and that it is a current and important determinant of health, rather than something to be put off for the future. Card believes further investment into mental health support and into work to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change is needed.

“We’ve heard for years that climate change is the most pressing public health crisis facing us today.” Card concludes. “Cities, provinces, and the government should be investing in mental health care. They should be looking for ways to address the worries and concerns that their citizens have about climate change.”

For those interested in finding out more, Card’s research is published in the Journal of Climate Change and Health.