Climate change takes a toll on Seattleites’ mental health

Eighteen homes in South Park are hooked in to the county’s combined sewer system, which floods during the Duwamish River’s high tides and heavy rain. Robin Schwartz, who lives in the neighborhood, said many of her neighbors find standing wastewater in their basements at least once a year. Those floods contain untreated human waste, as well as harmful viruses and bacteria that can remain in people’s homes for a month even after the water is gone.

King County is designing a new stormwater and wastewater tank for mitigation in South Park, with construction scheduled for 2025. Meanwhile, Schwartz and her neighbors bear both the emotional and financial stress that comes along with the flooding.

“My neighbors who are low-income, people of color and immigrants, they are left to clean it up,” said Schwartz, who leads the Duwamish River Community Coalition’s development and advocacy program. “Climate change is becoming more and more of an issue with heavier rainfalls and way more flooding events the last few years. It’s absolutely chronic.”

Climate change and stress

Several names have emerged to describe the mental health implications that come with a changing planet: climate anxiety, solastalgiaeco-anger.

Climate stress affects everyone’s nervous system differently, according to Emily Wright, founder of We Become, an environmental justice organization. In their work, Wright, who’s also an adjunct professor in Seattle University’s environmental science and psychology departments, explores how climate change affects emotional health, especially among people who disproportionately experience flooding, extreme heat and pollution.

To better understand this, Wright developed the Climate Stress Response Map, a framework that ties emotions to how the nervous system perceives a threat. Where people land on that spectrum depends on various factors, including lived experience, race, gender, class and ability. A natural disaster could trigger a person’s fight response, which could result in getting involved in a social movement, or it could cause someone to disassociate because of stress and ignore the situation.

“I talk about climate trauma because it’s traumatic, and not only with huge events and acute moments of extreme heat and flooding, but it’s also just living with it,” Wright said. “It just increases the baseline level of stress.”

Many in Seattle already experience challenging emotions during the darker, rainier months from October to July that some have come to call “The Big Dark.”

Nearly 30% of people in Seattle reported experiencing anxiety and depression in 2021, according to the latest annual report from the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau, which sought to gauge households’ emotional response to the pandemic.

Data for 2022 until May show a similar trend, with 28% of respondents reporting symptoms for the year so far.

January and February 2021 hit a high of 46% reporting anxiety or depression. While seasonal affective disorder is relatively common in wintersthat season was exceptionally chilly and wet, hitting the coldest week on record at the time.

Seattle’s typically light rains have also become heavier because of climate change. As the atmosphere warms, it’s able to hold a greater amount of water, retaining it like a sponge. When met by strong winds, that water can fall fast and hard. This doesn’t mean more frequent rains throughout the year. The past 20 years have brought a tendency for drier summers, and climate models indicate the same is likely for the future, according to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist. With that come prime conditions for wildfires, which have seemingly created their own season as they become more frequent, while bringing on new mental health implications for the region.

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