Climate change getting you down? You may not be only one, says UA study

Sabrina Helm sits in her office in the University of Arizona’s Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences on Feb. 5, 2018. Photo by: Michaela Webb/Arizona Sonora News.

Although many studies investigate the physical impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and more intense storms, very few ask how worrying about a changing climate could be affecting someone’s mental health.

A January study published by University of Arizona researchers in the journal Global Environmental Change did just that. The researchers found that concern about climate change negatively impacts mental health, and that people who are primarily concerned about nature, plants and animals are most affected.

“I think it’s very important to realize … that it may become a more pronounced problem for mental health,” said Sabrina Helman associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences and one of the researchers conducting the study.

The research team investigated how stressed people were about climate change, to what extent they used various coping strategies to deal with that stress, whether they experienced depressive symptoms and how much they were doing to reduce their personal impact.

The researchers looked at these impacts to mental health based on whether people had more “egotistic concern” about how climate change affects them personally, “altruistic concern” for how it will impact other people and future generations, or “biospheric concern” about climate change will affect nature and the planet as a whole.

The researchers found that people with more biospheric concern were more likely to experience depressive symptoms. “They also reflect more about this, so higher levels of ecological coping, and they’re engaging in more pro-environmental behaviors,” said Melissa Barnett, an associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences and one of the researchers working on the study.

Those with more altruistic concern didn’t show signs of stress or depressive symptoms, but did engage in coping behaviors. Those who were primarily concerned about themselves didn’t show signs of stress or coping.

“People who really care about nature, animals and plants are worried the most, and therefore likely to react with depressive symptoms. That’s the bad news,” Helm said. “The good news is that they have coping mechanisms that make it more likely for them to also act, which in turn may help them to get to a better spot.”

Krishna Bright, a counselor at the University of Arizona’s Counseling and Psych Services, said she’s seen climate change become a significant concern for certain students, especially graduate students in environmental science and related fields.

“No doubt, the concerns for the environmental changes have contributed to stress when there is an awareness or direct involvement in this area of research,” Bright said. “ Those that do express this concern typically experience either depression and/or anxiety underlying the concern.”

How to Cope

For people who fall into the biospheric concern group, there are ways to cope with stress about climate change. In fact, the researchers found that individuals engaging in coping behaviors were less likely to be depressed and more likely to act to reduce their environmental footprint.

“When we think about stress, high levels of stress are generally bad for us, but low to moderate levels of stress are actually quite adaptive and effective,” Barnett said.

For people concerned about nature and the environment, doing something to combat the problem could help people get to a more healthy psychological state, Helm said.


The team’s findings could help organizations working to fight climate change through messaging campaigns, many of which currently rely on images of environmental destruction and impacts to animals and plants. Although that type of imagery will motivate people who are biospherically concerned, it won’t engage those who are more worried about how climate change will affect them, their family, or humanity as a whole, Helm said.

Using nature-related imagery is “preaching to the choir,” Helm said, because people with biospheric concern are already more likely to act. Messaging shouldn’t ignore the biospheric group, but they should make sure to use imagery that will appeal to the egotistic and altruistic groups as well.

In order to be effective, any climate-change-related messaging should focus on what individuals can do to reduce their impact. This will both help the messaging translate to action and help individuals cope with the psychological impacts of climate change, Helm said.

“Doing something helps to be in a better place psychologically,” Helm said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to mitigate climate change that way, but it could be a little step in the right direction.”

Michaela Webb is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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