Climate Change’s Hidden Reach

A Mental Disorder Incubator

The detrimental impact global warming is having on our planet is undeniable - higher global temperatures, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and unprecedented weather systems. But could global warming also be effecting our mental health?

By John Salak –

It is virtually impossible to deny the detrimental impact of climate change. Think higher global temperatures, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, soaring greenhouse gas emissions, unprecedented weather systems and a jump in carbon dioxide emissions, among other issues. It’s obvious none of this does a body any good as airborne toxins abound and respiratory conditions surge. Unfortunately, the damage climate change brings isn’t limited to the environment and our bodies. Scientists warn it is also ravaging our mental stability.

Toxic accumulations of air pollutants, particularly lead, result in neurological and development problems that cause learning disabilities, antisocial behavior and reduced educational attainment, Dr. Benson Ku recently wrote in Psychiatric Times. The Clean Air Act of 1963, which was amended in 1970 and again in 1990, significantly reduced the impact of lead pollutants in the US. But Ku warns that air quality is now trending downward again, thanks to a rise in greenhouse gas admissions coupled with recent rollbacks of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that has resulted in a startling jump in carbon dioxide emissions.

The threat is greatest to the young. In fact, Aarthus University just reported that children growing up in high-pollution areas face a significantly greater risk of suffering from schizophrenia than those you don’t. The university’s study underscored the risk by noting that children living in the most polluted areas are 50 to 60 percent more likely to suffer from schizophrenia than those who live in relatively clean areas.

Genetics also plays a role in whether a child develops schizophrenia, but the study’s authors maintain that that impact of genetic predisposition and air pollution are independent of each other. Researchers, however, acknowledge that their study of almost 25,000 individuals did not discover why pollution had such a devastating impact on mental health, saying more research is needed.

The American Psychiatric Association noted separately that extreme weather conditions—droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc.— that damage infrastructure and severely disrupt normal routines is resulting in stress that can lead to more serious mental health issues. “The mental health consequences of events linked to a changing global climate include mild stress and distress, high-risk coping behavior such as increased alcohol use and, occasionally, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress,” the association reported.

While the ability to tackle climate change may be daunting, steady progress is being made to understand the causes and treatments of severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. John Hopkins Medicine, in fact, reports that early exposure to dogs may lessen the risk of developing schizophrenia.

It began its research under the assumption that severe psychiatric disorders often are associated with changes in a person’s immune systems that are tied to the environment. Since pets, particularly dogs and cats, are among the first things many children encounter, researchers looked into the connection between pet exposure and development of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Pooches apparently have protective powers. The study found exposure to dogs at a young age resulted in a significantly lower risk of children developing schizophrenia. There was no apparent impact of bipolar disease. Exposure to cats had no apparently impact on either illness.

John Hopkins was quick to cautious about reading too much into the correlation, noting more research is needed. But previous studies have shown that early exposure to pets can alter a person’s immune system and a home’s microbiome, while also inducing stress reduction on human brain chemistry.

Dr. Robert Yolken, the lead author of the John Hopkins study, suggests that “immune modulation” caused by dog exposure may ultimately reduce the risk of developing psychiatric disorders.

Yolken’s suggestion, if nothing else, underscores a dog’s place as man’s best friend.

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