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How Climate Change is Impacting Your Congregation’s Mental Health

By Ryan J. Smith
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When Americans consider the health impacts of climate change, they often cite physical consequences. As ecoAmerica’s new report shows, however, Americans are suffering the psychological consequences of climate change at an increasing rate. As a faith leader, you are greatly concerned about your congregation's health and that includes their mental health, particularly as it relates to spiritual growth. We know that mental illness hinders the spiritual prosperity of people of faith, but what does that have to do with climate change?

In 2014, ecoAmerica began preliminary research on the psychological impacts of storms and droughts in their pivotal research, Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change. Building on that research, ecoAmerica's latest report, produced in partnership with the American Psychological Association and Climate for Health, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, is intended to further inform and empower health and medical professionals, community leaders, and the public to tackle a routinely overlooked impact of climate change.

Mind, body, and spirit is a common trifecta used in faith communities to model the holistic approach to wellness. This common turn of phrase is familiar to faith leaders who are charged with ensuring that these three roads converge on the path to awakening. Unfortunately, the body and spirit get the most attention in today's society, pushing mental health to the sidelines. But as ecoAmerica's new report reveals, the psychological impacts of climate change are becoming more and more unavoidable.

While difficult to grasp at first, climate change impacts a person's mental health in various ways, and those impacts are dependent on a number of factors. According to ecoAmerica's research, the sensitivity of psychological impacts is dependent on a person's "geographic location, pre-existing disabilities or chronic illnesses, and socioeconomic and demographic inequalities, such as education level, income, and age."

Climate impacts like floods, storms, wildfires, and heat waves present immediate mental health problems, but other effects surface more gradually from changing temperatures and rising sea levels that cause forced migration or can impact livelihoods. Secondary impacts such as "weakened infrastructure and food insecurity" are examples of the indirect climate impact on society’s physical and mental health that quickly become grave concerns for the medical community, and they need faith leaders to help remedy these consequences.

"Major acute mental health impacts include increases in trauma and shock, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compounded stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression" – these are just a few of the climate-related diagnoses named in ecoAmerica’s report. And these maladies are having a major impact not only on individuals but entire communities who have lost their sense of purpose or the strong social connections they may have built through religious communities. In short, if a person is preoccupied with food insecurity or a drought that has devastated their professional industry, it's difficult for them to address their spiritual needs.

The reality is that climate change won't stop tomorrow, and while many faith leaders are advocating for policy reform to reverse it, we must begin to address the impacts already here. Climate change can make a person feel hopeless, meaningless, or instill a lack of autonomy as the world seemingly spins out of control. As a faith leader, you have a unique ability to raise your communities spirits, and in turn, raising their psychological wellness along with it. Here's how you can get started.

According to ecoAmerica’s report, vast amounts of external research indicates that "involvement in a faith community has been cited as a protective factor for mental health in several interview studies with people experiencing trauma (e.g., Cline, Orom, Child, Hernandez, & Black, 2015; Fernando, 2012; Harper & Pargament, 2015; Weine et al., 2014). For many, faith gives a sense of peace during times of difficulty (Marks, Hatch, Lu, & Cherry, 2015), and studies have shown that having a spiritual practice tends to boost an individual’s well-being and can be an important coping resource.”

“The social support of a faith community and having a spiritual practice can help people manage and find meaning in suffering during significant adversity (Ramsay & Manderson, 2011).” With climate impacts happening at a rapid pace, a faith leader may facilitate social engagement among their congregation through events or building creation-care committees to empower people of faith to do something about climate change. This two birds, one stone approach addresses the social needs of those suffering from climate change while giving them a sense of purpose and meaning through solutions.

Download the full report from ecoAmerica today and check out the webinar recording with ecoAmerica's Chief Engagement Officer, Meighen Speiser, and acting Executive Director of the American Psychological Association, Howard Kurtzman, to learn more.


Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.