Authored by Emily Vo, Computer Science '25
Art by Michelle Zhang, Biological Sciences and Information Science '25
The climate crisis has created colossal, cascading effects among migrants throughout the international and national community. Displacement, otherwise known as forced migration or internally displaced movement, is one of the many direct results of exacerbated weather conditions, lack of climate resilience investment, and systems of oppression that disproportionately impact lower income and people of color, especially through environmental injustice. It is therefore imperative to analyze an often overlooked intersection within sustainability: public health and climate migration. In developing literature surrounding the health of climate refugees and migrants, a deeper understanding of the ways in which public health is inextricably linked in addressing environmental injustice and inequality.
The climate crisis remains one of the most intricate issues within contemporary society by challenging our conventional definitions of sustainability as well as health equity. While the climate crisis may stand to impact the health of all individuals, there exists more vulnerable communities and groups without accessible support or resources to remain as resilient as others. Lower income, minority, and disabled communities are disadvantaged when addressing the impacts of climate change on the health of their respective communities. Historically, much of public health has been overwhelmingly influenced by climate or the environment in one aspect or another; Deteriorating healthcare, widespread respiratory problems, and grave medical diseases due to toxic plant waste are only a few instances in which environmental injustice has severely altered a community’s public health.
Moreover, these permanent environmental changes, such as extreme flooding, loss of biodiversity or vegetation, grave natural disasters, such as extended droughts and hurricanes, cause many environments, especially in rural and low-income areas, to become uninhabitable. Families and neighborhoods are displaced, both internally and through international borders, leading to a plethora of challenges, including loss of livelihoods, long-term financial and socioeconomic instability, and decline of both physical and mental wellness. These health issues are largely caused by heat-related morbidity, disaster-related injuries, and alterations of local ecosystems and, consequently, fresh water availability, food insecurity, and exposure to changing disease ecologies . Limited access to medical services, preventative medicine, water sanitation, and immobility further threaten the safety of migrants and overall health of communities. Even after migrating from one unsafe location, refugees may be exposed to infectious diseases for which they have limited immunity or face new climate-related health risks within that specific region. The cultural and economic contexts of these destination sites also play a vital role in migrant health, especially in the changing of understanding the effects on migrant mental health .
The climate migrant mental health crisis involves a critically complex reworking of both health equity and climate justice. Its relation to both the climate crisis and consequences of immigration and displacement must demand an original and careful approach to inclusive climate resilience. Although research continues to reveal high rates of declining mental health within displaced communities, much of climate action that addresses mental health of climate refugees and migrants are often overlooked. For instance, within Hurricane Katrina-affected areas (such as New Orleans, South Florida, Puerto Rico, and countries within the Carribbean), suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled after the disaster, with one in six people meeting the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and 49 percent of people developing an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression . Traumatic experiences and changes in livelihood have created numerous implications in understanding mental health of displaced peoples, especially in the context of climate and migration. Most notably, the importance of definitions (in what groups are defined as refugees and migrants) and formal acknowledgements in recognizing the mental health of refugees or migrants may lead to a broader understanding of the changing landscape of public health. The World Health Organization has also found that common mental health disorders, such as severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and “other symptoms of distress not necessarily diagnosable by Western psychological models'' are exacerbated within the era of climate change, and especially within environmentally displaced communities . Many stressors can be attributed to experiences of migration from uprooting familial and social ties, changing physical landscape, exposure to hazardous health conditions, violence, and environmental disasters . In addition, studies within mental health, especially through the public health sphere, are also inextricably linked with physical wellness, from biological reactions to rapid increase in heat to witnessing devastating disasters. In actively addressing mental health as a crucial part of public health, methods to mitigate and provide supportive care can be implemented to focus on bettering climate resilience in relation to migration.
Collectively, it is important to note that many of these health risks impact millions of rural, less developed, lower income, and communities of color at disproportionate rates. The increasing disparity in this national public health contributes to the continuation of displacement and forced migration. Refugees, internally displaced persons, and stateless peoples have historically been on the frontline for disaster displacement emergencies and climate-related events, and much of public health, especially through mental health, is constantly changing as climate migration patterns continually shift.
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