Dear medical community, it’s time to engage in the climate movement

I recently finished my geriatric psychiatry rotation. As a medical student and aspiring psychiatrist, I had the opportunity to participate in the care of those suffering from acute psychosis, depression, bipolar disorder, depression, and more — many of whom were dealing with suicidal ideation. While an engaging experience, I am worried. The climate crisis puts these patients at great risk.

I’m a novice to climate advocacy. I’ve long considered myself to be someone who cares about the climate and environment and knows that we need to do something to reverse the damages humanity has inflicted on our only earth. However, I never dug into the specific facts and statistics to examine just how bad things are and never quite knew exactly what solutions are required. On top of that, our changing climate is a problem so big and so complicated and so abstract that we often don’t know where to start advocating — at least that’s how I feel. I didn’t know my place in the climate movement.

I started my podcast in June. I knew there were many topics, such as racism and religion, that impact our health both directly and indirectly, and I wanted to create a show that would highlight them.  I also knew I wanted to produce an episode on the intersection of health and climate change because I knew there was something there. I believed that there is a role for the medical field in the climate movement, but I didn’t know how to fill it.

I finally recorded that episode this past week with Dr. Gaurab Basu, a primary care physician and Instructor at Harvard Medical School. He’s also the Co-Director of the Center for Health Equity Education & Advocacy at Cambridge Health Alliance.

I asked him about the connection between health and climate change, and he replied, “How I define the problem is natural disasters, food insecurity, water scarcity, infectious diseases, heat-related disease, which is a huge bucket of issues, respiratory disease, mental health, and then also forced migration and political conflicts.”

The moment he said the words “mental health,” my eyes opened to the idea that as a medical student and aspiring psychiatrist, I do have a place in the movement to advocate for a greener earth.

Shortly after our interview concluded, I started researching the ways climate change affects mental health. This was when I got worried. I read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and here what is true: Mental illness, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, increases after disasters occur. All you have to do is read about what happened after Hurricane Katrina, where rates of serious mental illness doubled, and PTSD remained high years after the hurricane hit. Further, rates of suicide increase with rising temperatures. Of course, climate change will cause more disasters and higher temperatures, leading to increased mental illness and more suicide.

Climate change is an issue that requires all hands on deck, and medicine and those in the medical field have a responsibility to join the climate movement in one way or another. It’s simply a matter of finding the corner of the universe where you can make your impact.

I asked Dr. Basu about what are ways to get involved. He said, “We’re all passionate about different things, and we have different skill sets, and so identify what you’re good at … the bigness can be overwhelming, but it also gives us opportunities to find our place in this work, and you don’t have to take on the whole thing.”

“If you’re a cardiovascular doctor, talk about the cardiovascular risks of air pollution,” Dr. Basu continued. “If you’re a pediatrician, talk about children. If you’re an OB/GYN, talk about the fact that air pollution (and) heat exposure increases the risk of premature labor.” The list goes on.

For my part, I plan to reach out to climate organizations and see what I can do to get involved. Whether that means writing more op-eds like this one or writing to legislators, I now recognize that as part of the medical field, especially in regard to mental health, I have a role to play. I invite all of you in the medical field to join me in this effort.

You can hear the rumblings in certain pockets that, just like with gun control, medicine should stay in its lane and not be involved in issues like climate advocacy. That’s simply not a tenable stance. With a warming planet and without action, the human population will simply get sicker. That stands in direct conflict with our oath to “Do no harm.”

So again, get involved with the climate movement in the best way you know how. Our patients’ and future patients’ lives are on the line.

Derek Wolfe is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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