Earlier this year, lawyer and activist David Buckel, known largely for working on the case that inspired the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, died after setting himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. In a suicide note, he revealed that his death was a climate protest against the destruction of the earth.
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves,” wrote Buckel.
“I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
Buckel’s suicide hasn’t been the only one motivated deeply by climate change.
As Global Temperatures Rise, Suicide Rates Follow
In a recent study by Stanford University and UC Berkeley, researchers concluded that projected temperature increases could lead to an additional 21,000 suicides in the United States and Mexico by 2050. They found that with every 1°C increase in monthly average temperature, suicide rates increase by 0.7% in US counties, and 2.1% in Mexican municipalities.
Although there isn’t a causal link between rising temperatures and suicides, the results show “remarkable consistency” over time and place.
“Unmitigated climate change [represents] a change in suicide rates comparable to the estimated impact of economic recessions, suicide prevention programmes, or gun restriction laws,” the research said.
Researchers analysed data from multiple decades for the United States and Mexico, and took into account seasonal variation, levels of poverty, and even the news of celebrity suicides.
They also analysed depressive language in more than 600 million social media updates during warmer periods. They found that Tweets included words such as “lonely,” “trapped” or “suicidal” more during hot spells.
In 2013, research also showed that as temperatures rise, violence increases.
“We’ve been studying the effects of warming on conflict and violence for years, finding that people fight more when it’s hot. Now we see that in addition to hurting others, some individuals hurt themselves. It appears that heat profoundly affects the human mind and how we decide to inflict harm,” said Solomon Hsiang, study co-author and associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Connection to Mental Health
This study is also supported by research that linked climate change to 60,000 suicides in India in the last three decades. In 2017, UC Berkeley researcher Tamma Carleton discovered a deep link between global warming and suicides in India. During the agricultural growing season, an increase of 1°C on any day warmer than 20°C, led to approximately 65 suicides across the country. Warming a day by 5°C had five times that impact.
Extreme weather events can indeed have extreme adverse effects on mental health. Because hotter days lead to heat waves and drought, crops are often damaged and lost for the entire season. This has had profound implications on household savings and financial stability, imposing a heavy toll on people’s psyches. It is not a surprise then, that such desperate situations can drive people to suicide.
Indeed, extreme weather events can cause extreme trauma, anxiety, depression, and stress. Floods, wildfires, and droughts can destroy businesses, force people to move, and lead to a loss of social support and community resources.
For the more than 20 million people who are forced to move every year as a result of climate change migration, the trauma and psychological loss of losing homes, jobs, and communities can be devastating. The American Public Health Association estimates that 25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects.
Indeed, 49% of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina developed an anxiety or mood disorder, and 1 in 6 developed PTSD. After Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, there was a 30% increase in the number of suicides.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Exposure to extreme heat has been associated with increased use of alcohol to cope with stress, increases in hospital and emergency room admissions for people with mental health or psychiatric conditions, and increase in suicide. Extreme weather events have also been associated with increases in aggressive behavior and domestic violence.”
A different type of trauma exists for native communities and family farming communities who are increasingly witnessing the loss of their environment. With mounting ecological losses and the prospect of an uncertain future, these communities are grieving for lost landscapes or species that carry personal and collective meaning.
Researchers described it as “ecological grief.”
For Inuit communities in Arctic Canada, melting ice has prevented travel to cultural sites, restricted engagement in traditional activities, stopped activities such as hunting and fishing. This has led to grief, anger, sadness, and a profound sense of loss.
In an interview, an Inuit woman from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut said, “I think that [the changes] will have an impact maybe on mental health, because it’s a depressing feeling when you’re stuck. I mean for us to go off [on the land] is just a part of life. If you don’t have it, then that part of your life is gone, and I think that’s very depressing.”
As this body of research expands, one thing is becoming clearer and clearer: climate change is not just inflicting harm on the environment, agricultural outputs, and infrastructure. It is increasingly having wide-ranging impacts on mental health, creating conditions for trauma, anxiety, depression, and psychological loss.
Another Inuit man from Nunatsiavut echoes the sentiment. “It’s hurting in a way,” he says. “It’s hurting in a lot of ways.”