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Harvard Public Health Researchers Examine Link Between Climate Change and Mental Health

A group of Harvard scientists linked the chronic effects of climate change to adverse mental health outcomes.
A group of Harvard scientists linked the chronic effects of climate change to adverse mental health outcomes. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Christie E. Beckley and Xinni (Sunshine) Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

A group of Harvard researchers linked the chronic effects of climate change to adverse mental health outcomes in a study published in Nature last Monday.

Alongside scientists from the University of Chicago, Oxford University, and Yale University, the Harvard researchers synthesized quantitative and qualitative data to address how slower moving climate factors negatively impacted a population.

While previous research has focused on the impact of short-term disasters such as hurricanes, this study took a broader scope, according to Christy A. Denckla, an assistant professor at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author on the paper with Kate Burrows, an assistant professor from the University of Chicago.

Denckla said the team’s research is the “first comprehensive look at mental health and these slower moving climate change factors.”

The study found robust evidence that “slowly escalating ambient temperatures over time” were “associated with a range of mental health outcomes” including suicide and depression, Denckla said.

Denckla said a unique aspect of the research was its focus on qualitative data and the incorporation of narratives from indigenous populations.

These testimonials, she said, helped establish “how people are struggling with worries about their future, and the impact of specific ecosystems on communities that rely very intimately on those ecosystems.”

Building on Burrow’s and Denckla’s research, a separate study from Harvard Professor Karestan C. Koenen and PhD student Hervet Randriamady is investigating the impact of climate-induced stressors in Madagascar.

According to Koenen, the Madagascar study addresses “gaps” in the research linking climate change and mental health, noting that much of the existing research is based in the U.S.

“The countries that are most affected by climate change are the least studied,” she said.

Randriamady, the director of the Madagascar study, said their research on climate-induced anxiety is necessary to further understand the effects of a changing environment.

“In order to measure how climate change will be associated with food insecurity, we need to first have that valid tool,” he said.

To address the effects of climate change on mental health, Denckla said mitigating disparities in public health is “going to be one of the most important interventions and factors for consideration in addressing the association between mental health and climate change.”

“We can think about individual psychotherapy as one approach, but to really address the population health impact, the solutions need to come at the population health level,” she said.

Specifically, she emphasized the importance of a two-pronged approach to combating climate-induced psychological distress.

“We need action-oriented solutions, as well as robust and gold standard empirical research in the area,” Denckla said.

She also identified what she considers an important collaboration across industries in tackling the effects of climate change.

“The solution for planetary health must come from all sectors: private, public, academic,” Denckla added. “It’s an all hands on deck challenge.”

—Staff writer Christie E. Beckley can be reached at christie.beckley@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cbeckley22.

—Staff writer Xinni (Sunshine) Chen can be reached at sunshine.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sunshine_cxn.

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ResearchSchool of Public HealthMental Health