How The Heat Dome Impacted Our Mental Health

January 24, 2022

We’re sure everyone who lives in B.C. recalls the heat dome experienced last summer; temperatures in the province soared to over 40 degrees, causing physical damage and discomfort, and making it, perhaps, clearer than ever that climate change is no joke. Now, researchers have been taking a look at the impact this event, and others like it, had and have on our mental health. We spoke with Kiffer Card, an assistant professor and Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research scholar within the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University to find out more. —Noa Nichol

Researchers with the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance recently published a study in the Journal of Climate Change and Health; what was it about, and why could it be considered groundbreaking?

This study represents the first published results from the British Columbia Climate Distress Monitoring System, which aims to understand the impacts of climate-related weather events on the mental health and wellbeing of British Columbians. It is one of the first studies to measure and quantify the population-wide impacts of a specific climate-related weather event on the mental wellbeing of our community. We found that more than half—about 58 per cent—of British Columbians were more worried about climate change following the heat dome. Using a scientifically validated scale that assesses cognitive and functional impairments, we found that the average score after the heat dome was about 13 per cent higher than prior to the head dome. This means British Columbians are on the trajectory of experiencing significantly more functional and cognitive impairments as the realities of a changing environment come into view.

According to the study, what are some of the direct links between mental health and climate change-related weather events?

This report does not include specific analyses related to the direct pathways by which mental health is impacted by climate change. However, our ongoing work shows that climate change is driving concerns about the regions people live in, the industries they choose to work in, and whether or not they should start a family. We also know that people are concerned about their loved ones and whether they will be safe from extreme weather events such as the heat dome. These are profound concerns that have great potential to reshape cities and communities across British Columbia. The jobs people take, where they choose to live, whether they have kids—these are the fundamental choices of life and the bedrock of every community. 

In terms of the “heat dome” we experienced in B.C. last summer specifically and its mental-heath impact, what were some of the key findings from the study?

As mentioned, this one event increased people’s concerns about climate change across British Columbia. We should, of course, all be concerned about climate change. It is a huge threat to our way of life—especially for Indigenous people, people living in rural areas, those who are reliant on agriculture and forestry. But what our study was concerned with was the cognitive and functional impairments that climate change is causing. The disruption it is causing in our lives. 

Any advice/tips on what steps can be taken to alleviate stress/anxiety around climate change?

Worry about climate change is natural. A little stress, a little anxiety, is a normal part of life. We get hungry because our bodies want us to eat. We get thirsty because our bodies want us to drink. We get lonely because our bodies want us to connect with others. A little bit of stress is a message from our body to act. The challenge with climate change is people don’t have many satisfying outlets for action. People therefore have to cope with this reality. Coping strategies like meditation, spending time in nature, grounding yourself in your physical presence, finding meaning through connection and collective action—these are the sorts of strategies that we’re looking toward advancing as means for dealing with climate distress. 

We’re very curious: do you think “buzzy” and, honestly, never-before-heard terms like “heat dome” and “atmospheric river” impacts anxiety related to climate change? Are these types of terms meant to go viral on social media, scare us, or spur us into action? What are your thoughts?

I think there is a growing consensus that extreme heat events are directly caused by climate change. The effect of climate change on heat levels is among the most scientifically supported bodies of research when it comes to understanding the effects of carbon emissions on the weather. I think this realization is giving media organizations the courage to say that a specific flood or specific fire or specific heat wave is caused by climate change. The language in the media is perhaps for the first time reflecting the scientific evidence. I think that has caught a lot of attention from people who follow social media. So now, the ball is in our court. We must push our governments to better prepare for the coming impacts of climate change. This applies not only to addressing our carbon emission problems, but also by making necessary investments in infrastructure, mental health care, and communities that will help us cope with the new climate realities that have arrived. 


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