Wildfires Drive Anxiety Surge: Urgent Climate-Mental Health Action Needed

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An Emory University study published in Nature Mental Health on February 15 sheds light on a concerning trend: wildfires are not only devastating landscapes but also impacting mental health. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by researchers at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, is one of the most extensive investigations into the connection between wildfires and anxiety disorders.

The research, which analyzed data spanning from 2007 to 2018 and encompassing nearly 1.9 million emergency department visits across California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, revealed a significant correlation. Wildfire smoke events, where wildfires become the primary source of pollution within a specific area, were found to coincide with a 6.3% increase in emergency visits related to mental health.

Moreover, the study highlighted several key findings:

  • Women, girls, and older adults are particularly vulnerable to severe anxiety disorders triggered by exposure to wildfires.
  • While men and boys also experienced heightened anxiety, it was predominantly linked to major smoke events.
  • The findings underscore the urgent need for enhanced disaster risk reduction strategies and climate risk management. Specifically, there is a call for tailored climate awareness and risk communication targeted at vulnerable populations.

What the Researchers Say:

According to study co-author Yang Liu, PhD, chair and Gangarosa Distinguished Professor in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health at Rollins, “The scary thing about climate change is it doesn’t have a clear boundary; you fear a lot about the unknown. Now we can use the knowledge we’ve gained to tell people there is no need to panic. When you receive a wildfire smoke alert, close your windows, limit your outdoor activities and don’t panic. Those sorts of preventative measures can potentially benefit the entire population.”

Lead author Qingyang Zhu, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health, emphasizes, “Mental health is one of the most prevalent health conditions in the U.S. and our study found multiple pathways between wildfires and an association with severe anxiety disorders. Many people are already dealing with some mild or moderate mental health symptoms. Now imagine they wake up and see the sky covered in smoke, they’re likely going to feel even more anxious.”

Why it Matters:

Rising temperatures and shifting drying patterns have significantly intensified the risk of wildfires worldwide in the last two decades, leading to larger burned areas and prolonged fire seasons. The western United States, in particular, stands out as a major fire-prone region due to recurrent fire weather conditions, increasing droughts, and ample fuel resources.

Climate change has been implicated in various psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders. The western US’s vulnerability to wildfires exacerbates these mental health challenges.

Furthermore, mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, pose a growing threat to global public health. According to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study from 2020, anxiety disorder ranked as the 24th leading contributor out of 369 diseases to the global burden of disease. As such, addressing the intersection of mental health and climate change-induced disasters like wildfires is critical for public health and well-being.