Briefing Paper: Global Climate Change and Trauma
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Briefing Paper Working Group Members
Jura L. Augustinavicius, PhD
McGill University, Canada
Johns Hopkins University, United States
Sarah R. Lowe, PhD
Yale University, United States
Alessandro Massazza, PhD
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom
Katie Hayes, PhD
University of Toronto, Canada
Christy Denckla, PhD
Harvard University, United States
Ross G. White, PhD
University of Liverpool, United Kingdom
Carissa Cabán-Alemán, MD
Florida International University, United States
Susan Clayton, PhD
The College of Wooster, United States
Lena Verdeli, PhD
Columbia University, United States
Helen Berry, PhD
Macquarie University, Australia
The authors gratefully acknowledge valuable input from Dr. Diane Elmore Borbon, Dr. Judith Bass, Dr. Elana Newman, and Dr. Angela Nickerson of the ISTSS Public Health and Policy Committee and Dr. Debra Kaysen, ISTSS Immediate Past-President. The authors wish to thank Virginia McCaughey for creating the figure that accompanies this briefing paper.
Suggested citation: Augustinavicius, J. L., Lowe, S. R., Massazza, A., Hayes, K., Denckla, C., White, R. G., Cabán-Alemán, C., Clayton, S., Verdeli, L., Berry, H. (2021) Global climate change and trauma: An International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Briefing Paper. Retrieved from: https://istss.org/public-resources/istss-briefing-papers/briefing-paper-global-climate-change-and-trauma
As human beings, our physical and mental health cannot be separated from the environments in which we live. Climate change, if left unaddressed, is projected to have catastrophic consequences on the mental health of entire populations. The impacts of climate change on traumatic stress and other aspects of mental health arise primarily from problems that are collectively, though not equally, experienced. These include insufficient political will and harmful policies, increased exposure to disasters, poverty, violence, the erosion of important places and landscapes, and harms to human physical health and the health of ecosystems, among others. This briefing paper describes the current state of knowledge in relation to climate change and trauma and highlights a number of gaps to encourage rapid development and collaboration on this topic across public health, policy, clinical, and research areas.
We describe how both acute and chronic or gradual climate change conditions can impact the frequency and severity of DSM-5 criterion A traumatic events which, in turn, can result in post-trauma psychopathology. We suggest that climate change contributes to traumatic stress and mental health burden through the accumulation of collectively but unequally experienced climate change-induced stressors over the life course across social, economic, and environmental domains. We also describe a growing area of research focused on the impacts of vicariously experienced stressors and anticipation of climate change-related stressors. We highlight a range of factors that may support and enhance mental health in the context of stressful climate change conditions, promote positive collective action, and contribute to psychosocial adaptation, as well as the need for further work in these areas. We specifically discuss theoretical implications of individual and collective action on post-traumatic growth and potential new areas of inquiry on post traumatic growth in the context of climate change. We include a range of relevant current and future public health, policy, clinical, and research initiatives, and make recommendations in each of these areas.
Effective and feasible methods for mitigating the impacts of climate change already exist and, if promptly and appropriately implemented, have the potential of preventing trauma for generations. We hope this briefing paper will serve to highlight currently available evidence and the evidence and action needed in order to prioritize, promote, and protect the mental health and well-being of people, communities, and societies in the face of climate change.