Hidden Toll Of Climate Change

The media needs to do more to report on the mental health impact of climate change, according to a new public health study out of the University of Alberta.

Climate change is adversely affecting mental health in a number of direct and indirect ways, says Breanne Aylward of the School of Public Health. Severe climate events — such as wildfires, floods and extreme heat — can initiate anxiety, depression and PTSD in some people. Even those who aren't as directly affected by climate change, especially the young, can suffer anxiety, sometimes known as "eco-anxiety," just from exposure to the news.

Media outlets often report on climate disasters, but there's a valuable opportunity to enhance coverage by also focusing on the ongoing adaptation measures that communities implement in response, says Aylward.

"We know climate change is already impacting mental health. Focusing on the protective factors, interventions and coping strategies people use is really important for prompting action to reduce risks in the future."

Aylward's study, published in the journal Environmental Health, looked at how the press in Canada and the United States covered climate and mental health in more than 1,000 articles in English and French between 2016 and 2020. In the first year, few outlets gave the topic much space, she says. But coverage increased by 2019 before dipping again in 2020, likely because of the COVID pandemic.

And though media reports about climate and mental health fluctuated somewhat, there was a dramatic spike in September 2019, says Aylward, likely driven by events such as the Canadian federal election in October, the international Global Week for Future climate strikes and the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

"More news outlets were talking about mental health during climate events, but it wasn't a sustained conversation," she says. "The volume of news coverage on climate-mental health issues starkly contrasts with overall climate change reporting."

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