Rising temperatures will bring more extreme storms, fire and heat crises; a public health approach can help build mental health resilience
By Bob Doppelt
The impacts of the climate emergency are accelerating across Oregon. No plans have been made, however, to prepare residents for the pervasive psychological and emotional stresses and traumas speeding our way. This is a monumental mistake. The Legislature and state agencies must swiftly get out in front of these issues by proactively building population-level mental wellness and resilience.
Global temperatures will continue to rise, and every 10th-of-a-degree increase will cause more severe impacts. In southern Oregon we can expect more frequent and extreme storms, heat waves, wildfires, hazardous smoke events, droughts and other disasters that psychologically and emotionally traumatize 20-40% of those directly impacted, as well as 10-20% of those who view the events from afar. Coupled with the disasters will be cascading disruptions to the ecological, social, and economic systems residents rely on for food, water, jobs, incomes, health, and other basic needs that significantly stress everyone.
The consequences of stress
Left unaddressed, these stresses and traumas will have poisonous consequences. Research shows climate impacts can increase suicides, lead to more drug and alcohol abuse, and cause more interpersonal aggression and violence.
These troubles will add to the state’s already considerable mental health problems. National studies have found that Oregon has more mental health difficulties than most other states. In recent sessions the Legislature consequently appropriated $1.35 billion toward behavioral health.
Although helpful, even with more funds there will never be enough mental health providers to assist all the people with significant issues. Fears of stigmatization and other factors also lead almost half of those needing help to shun professional services. In addition, mental health services are reactive: They assist people only after they have experienced symptoms of pathology and do not prevent them.
The state must realize the limitations of its current approach and make concerted efforts to prepare all residents for pervasive shocks and strains by using a public health approach to build universal mental wellness and resilience for all types of adversities.
Heading off mental health crises
A public health approach focuses on the entire population, with different but connected interventions for people deemed at greater risk and those already experiencing symptoms of pathology. The top priority is to prevent mental health problems before they emerge, with group and community-minded healing methods integrated into the prevention strategies. This is achieved by strengthening protective factors that enhance everyone’s capacity to buffer themselves from, and push back against, traumatic stressors and remain psychologically and emotionally healthy and resilient during hardships.
Many communities nationwide are using a public health approach, though only a few do so in Oregon. They establish a social infrastructure, often called a Resilience Coordinating Network, that continually engages a diverse network of individuals, groups, and organizations in implementing strategies that help everyone strengthen their capacity to prevent and heal suffering. As Robin Saenger, director of Peace4Tarpon in Florida told me, “Community is the big deal. The human infrastructure is where the action is at.”
Building resilience into the system
Building social connections throughout the community is one foundational goal of these initiatives. Another is helping all residents become ”trauma- and resilience-informed.” Still another is helping residents find new meaning, purpose and hope in their lives. This involves actively engaging them in establishing healthy, safe and just climate-resilient local infrastructure, economies and ecological systems. Resilience hubs, which have been proposed in Oregon, are just one element of the much more comprehensive approach that is used.
The climate crisis threatens us all, and for many the situation seems hopeless. It is not. The Legislature and state agencies can help Oregonians take control of their future by prioritizing the use of a public health approach in communities to build universal mental wellness and resilience.
Bob Doppelt lives in Eugene and coordinates the International Transformational Resilience Coalition (ITRC), a network of mental-health, human-services and other organizations working to prevent and heal climate-generated mental health problems (website: itrcoalition.org). His new book, “Preventing and Healing Climate Trauma: A Guide for Building Resilience and Hope in Communities,” will be released in late March by Taylor and Francis Publishing.