Understanding the impact of climate change on mental health

Our recent research funded by EPA found that warming temperatures from climate change could result in an annual increase of up to 1,660 additional suicide cases later this century in the U.S.

RESULTS AT A GLANCE
4.1%
potential increase in the average suicide rate if the U.S. warms 6 degrees Celsius above baseline
$2B–$3B
annual economic value of avoiding these suicides

Building a better understanding of climate change and its impact on mental health can help identify ways to address both crises.

Challenge

Researchers wanted to develop an approach to quantifying the mental health risks of climate change in the U.S. using available published work on the association between climate change and mental health outcomes. This work was intended to complement EPA's Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis (CIRA) framework to quantify the physical effects and economic damages of climate change in the U.S.

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Solution

With contract funding from EPA, our team leveraged nationally representative data on the link between suicides and temperature for U.S.-wide impact modeling. We then used ClimateSight, our custom climate risk analytics tool, to create projections of temperature and precipitation. Working with terabytes of daily temperature and precipitation data, U.S. population data by census-block group, and average suicide rates from 1999–2019, we found that suicides in the U.S. could increase by an additional 283–1,660 cases annually depending on the rise in global temperatures. Then we used EPA’s Value of a Statistical Life to estimate the annual economic value of avoiding these impacts would be $2 billion–$3 billion.

Results

Our paper, “Projecting the Suicide Burden of Climate Change in the United States,” was published in GeoHealth. The paper is important because it gives a sense of the magnitude of the issue: The largest impacts are likely to be in regions with higher population density (Northwest, Northeast, Midwest, and South) and areas expected to see the largest increases in temperature and decreases in precipitation (Midwest, North Central, Northeast, and South).

The bottom line of our analysis is that for every degree warmer temperatures are in the future, we'll see more of an impact on suicides. Future work in this area has the potential to contribute to the development of effective mental health interventions in the face of a changing climate.

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