The floors in Dana Jones’ home in Houston’s Melrose Park neighborhood are warped by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and the walls are growing black mold, thanks to Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019, which she didn’t discover until her pipes burst during Winter Storm Uri in 2021. The recurring disasters have taken a toll on her mental health, too. “It’s destroying me,” she told Houston Public Media.
Jones isn’t alone; the persistent drumbeat of climate-fueled disasters, and the looming specter that the worst is yet to come, is driving an increase in mental illness not just for those worried about the future, but also for those traumatized by the past.
The seven federally-declared disasters in the last ten years left nearly half of Houston-area participants in one study with PTSD symptoms. Terms like “climate trauma,” “climate anxiety” and “eco-grief” are becoming more common among mental health experts. Additionally, the data show, because “the more disasters that folks were exposed to, the more likely they are to have symptoms of PTSD, depression and generalized distress,” according to Sarah Lowe of the Yale School of Public Health. While therapy can help address the symptoms, so too can weatherizing a home to prepare it for the next disaster or lifting it high enough to escape the next flood.
Disaster prep can help ease strain
“If your hand is accidentally slammed in a door, you’re not only going to do things to bring kind of a peaceful state of mind. You want to get your hand out of the door, too. The psychological part is really meant to go hand in hand with climate action,” climate psychology educator Leslie Davenport told the Washington Post.
Unfortunately for Dana Jones, whose neighbors have raised and repaired many of their houses, lapsed flood insurance means she will receive no federal assistance to fix the damage from prior events, or prepare it for the next one. “With other kinds of anxiety problems, you might want to try to get people to realize that their fears are overblown, but that’s less likely to be the case with climate change,” said IPCC lead author and climate and mental health researcher Susan Clayton. “In some cases, their fears are not overblown.” (Houston Public Media, Texas Tribune, Washington Post $)