Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au… I am the river and the river is me.
Members of the New Zealand College of Clinical Psychologists are concerned about climate change and its mental health effects. Reports from global organisations such as the World Health Organisation (1) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2) show human activity is causing unprecedented changes to the climate and placing ecological and social systems at risk of catastrophic breakdown. The whakataukī above seems appropriate as it highlights, among many things, the relationship between people and the land.
Climate change has serious adverse mental health implications. The effects of climate change such as extreme storms, drought, wildfire, sea-level rise, depletion of fresh water sources, proliferation of carriers of new diseases, migration, threats to food security, and its socio-economic impacts cause psychological stress and trauma, which can lead to debilitating mental health problems and reduce the ability of the wider health system to provide mental health services (3, 4). The impacts of climate change are most severe for vulnerable and marginalised groups such as tangata whenua, the elderly, people with disabilities and chronic disease and low-income groups (3). The impacts of climate change on children and young people’s mental health are particularly significant (5,6).
As clinical psychologists, we recognise that hope for the future is important to wellbeing. We point out there are hopeful signs with respect to climate change action. There is increasing public awareness as evidenced by movements such as School Strike for Climate. We also recognise government efforts in taking steps to address climate change in legislation. Nevertheless, we join with academics and others in the health and science professions in calling for more urgent and further reaching action from government and other institutions to mitigate the effects of climate change (7,8,9,10).
Clinical psychologists in New Zealand work in accordance with a Code of Ethics which places strong emphasis on social justice and responsibility to society (11). Therefore, members of the College should:
- Support organisations working in climate change and health such as the New Zealand Psychological Society’s Climate Psychology Task Force OraTaiao; The New Zealand Climate and Health Council; and the Royal Society Te Apārangi.
- Provide our expertise in behaviour change so that individuals and organisations can be empowered to respond effectively to climate change.
- Educate ourselves with respect to relevant psychological constructs such as climate change denial and eco-anxiety.
- Increase our capability in working with climate change related mental health presentations such as trauma and eco-anxiety.Adopt and advocate for work practices that reduce negative impacts on the environment.
To summarise, climate change and the state of our physical environment is of key importance to human wellbeing and physical and mental health. Psychologists along with tangata whenua and all others have an important role of kaitiakitanga – being custodians of the land. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that climate change is a vital issue for governments, commercial organisations, society, and individuals to increase our action to reduce and reverse climate change. We call on our members to be involved in the above activities to assist with reducing climate change and its negative impacts. We also call on the government, the commercial sector, society, and individuals to redouble their efforts in this direction. Being “all in this together” during Covid-19 has shown what we can collectively achieve. Adopting this on a country-wide level can set an example to the world that will make a difference both locally and globally.
- World Health Organisation (2018). Climate Change and Health. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C, An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Geneva: IPCC
- Royal Society Te Apārangi. (2017). Human health impacts of climate change for New Zealand evidence summary. Retrieved from https://royalsociety.org.nz/assets/documents/Report-Human-Health-Impacts-of-Climate-Change-for-New-Zealand-Oct-2017.pdf
- Berry, H. L., Bowen, K., & Kjellstrom, T. (2010). Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. International Journal of Public Health, 55(2), 123-132.
- Burke, S. E., Sanson, A. V., & Van Hoorn, J. (2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current psychiatry reports, 20(5), 35.
- Gharabaghi, K., & Anderson-Nathe, B. (2018) Children and youth in the era of climate change. Child & Youth Services, 39(4), 207-210. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0145935X.2018.1557882
- OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council. (2018) Climate Change and Health Professionals Joint Call for Action. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/orataiao/pages/15/attachments/original/1566980781/Climate_Change_and_Health_Joint_Call_for_Action_-_revised_2018.pdf?1566980781
- Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Barnard, P., Moomaw, W., & Pujol, B. (2019). World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. BioScience. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biz088/5610806
- New Zealand Psychological Society. (2018). Environmental wellbeing and responsibility to society. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/NZPsS-2018-Statement-on-Environmental-Wellbeing-and-Responsibility-to-Society-Reviewed-Final-Version-20-April-2018-1.pdf
- An open letter to the NZ Government urging immediate action on climate change. (2018). Retrieved from
- Code of Ethics Review Group. (2012). Code of ethics for psychologists working in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.psychologistsboard.org.nz/cms_show_download.php?id=235