Climate Change: Social Work Addresses Environmental Impacts on Physical and Mental Health

globe with blinking eye superimposed, tears falling down

By Alison Laurio

The year 2020 set a record for disaster shelters.

With the climate-related increase of disasters—including wildfires and hurricanes—and the COVID-19 pandemic stopping many people from staying with relatives when disaster strikes, the American Red Cross furnished more than 1.2 million nights of sheltering by Dec. 1. This is four times more than an average year, the Scientific American reported in a Dec. 2 article.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states climate change impacts go beyond rising temperatures. They affect communities and ecosystems in the U.S. and worldwide—involving things we value and depend upon. “Water, energy, transportation, wildlife, agriculture, ecosystems and human health are experiencing the effects of a changing climate.”

Some human impacts are physical and easy to see. But climate change also affects mental health, and because it is an issue of social and environmental justice, the social work profession is stepping up to help.

In the “Climate and Health Assessment for 2016,” the U.S. Global Change Research Program found “the effects of global climate change on mental health and well-being are integral parts of the overall climate-related human health impacts.”

Its findings “range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidality.” Symptoms often interact with other stressors, both social and environmental. They are cumulative, and they are critical to understanding the overall effects climate change has on health.

Complex Impact


We cannot be complacent about climate change, said Lawrence A. Palinkas, PhD, the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Palinkas also is a USC faculty fellow at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and co-lead on the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge to Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment. He said it is important to consider separately the three different categories of climate events, because human impacts differ.

Extreme weather events, like floods or hurricanes, last for days. Subacute weather events last for months or years, like droughts. And environmental changes are lasting, leaving higher temperatures, rises in sea level and “a permanently altered and potentially uninhabitable physical environment.”

With extreme events, “we have not only the expertise to respond, we’ve learned who is at risk of mental health problems and have been able to apply many techniques or forms of treatment or interventions,” Palinkas said.

Subacute events, like droughts, are not as immediate or visible, but they are longer, possibly creating lasting depression or anxiety. This is the most visible impact and even has a new climate-related term—eco-anxiety.

Additional strategies include interventions to address job loss and displacement.

Longer-term events can create fear of the future and a feeling nothing can be done about the situation, which “leaves a sense of loss due to environmental changes that have increased the rates of suicide and hospitalization for people with increased mental health problems,” Palinkas said.

Encouraging people to respond in some way can help lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed, he said, and promoting conservation and resilience also can help. “Responding, even in baby steps, is important so people feel engaged and feel they’re doing something.”

Children respond to the anxieties of their parents, he said, so if a parent is exhibiting resilience in the face of a climate disaster, the child is likely to exhibit it as well.

“With respect to the longer-term existential threat, much of that is anxiety driven—being anxious over their own future,” Palinkas said.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study involving youth interviews found they feared for their future because of climate change, he said, and some schools are using interventions developed specifically for children.

First Response

Arriving quickly to the site of a climate-caused event or disaster is important in caring for the victims, said John Weaver, MSW, LCSW, BCD, ACSW, a clinical therapist at Olivewood Counseling in Bethlehem, Pa., and founding partner of Eye of the Storm Inc., a training organization currently inactive.

Weaver is a full-time American Red Cross volunteer and responder and an advanced instructor/trainer who developed three classes for its response curriculum. He discovered and joined the disaster services area in the early 1990s.

“Being a social worker, I got into that to help people,” Weaver said. “At that time, no one specialized in mental health, so I got in on the ground floor.”

The organization provided him an opportunity to do hands-on helping, and he specializes in grief and bereavement work.

Climate change has lengthened the seasons for hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes, so these events are more common and impact more people, Weaver said.

“It’s disrupting peoples’ lives more and more,” he said. “That means some who experience (storm-related) flooding and can’t afford to move to a different spot are experiencing it more often. Not a lot of folks have the money for repairs, so whenever it happens, it’s magnified. That’s very demoralizing.”

The increased need for responders to help with the physical and emotional needs of those directly impacted is draining for those already helping on the front lines, Weaver said.

Disaster mental health response is needed for two different groups, he said: the victims of the disaster, and everyone who helps them. That includes staff members, volunteers, emergency responders and those who just pitch in.

“For victims, we try to get them back to some sense of normalcy,” Weaver said, like helping with basic necessities such as shelter. “We try to help them toward routines. It’s triage. Mental health support is a lot like supporting a grief process. It’s grieving and loss and rebuilding a new life around what’s missing. Unfortunately, the added stress can bring about problems they didn’t have before the disaster.”

Since helpers are at “great risk of secondary traumatic stress, we do a lot of self-care,” he said.

In spite of some downsides, Weaver encourages any social worker who is interested to become involved in disaster response.

Tasks vary from referring people to organizations to helping folks fill out forms, to triage and assessment, he said. “What we do is the skill set all social workers develop, and it’s what some who do trauma and grief work do in their job.”

Effects on Native Communities

The last time Shenondora Billiot went home to visit, waters had swallowed more land since her prior trip there.

Billiot, MSW, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Watts College of Public Service at Arizona State University in Phoenix, is a member of the United Houma Nation in southeastern Louisiana.

Overall climate changes are part of the cause for land loss, she said. Hotter water in the Gulf of Mexico creates longer hurricane seasons, and marshland dredging for oil fields are additional factors. “There also has been land manipulation to cut the Mississippi River from its natural back-and-forth flow.”

The dredging and river changes combined “have caused massive loss of land in Louisiana, she said. “From 1950 to 2000, there’s been an average loss of 35 square miles a day.”

The state and her tribe have lost lands equivalent to the size of Delaware, and lost land for her tribe amounts to about 60 percent of that, she said.

“It’s been challenging for the tribe, with repeated disasters and land loss,” Billiot said. “Changes to the land have been detrimental to the physical health of our people.”

The soil contains more salt now without a marshland barrier, which she said changed the ecosystem—killing trees and preventing many from subsistence living methods like using raised-bed gardens to grow food.

“Over time it’s made people more dependent on cheap, unhealthy processed food,” Billiot said. And off-shore oil drilling also has an “indirect impact on some health outcomes.”

There are mental and emotional effects too, she added. In a study for her dissertation, Billiot found 20 percent of 150 participants met the criteria for PTSD, anxiety or depression.

When asked about their perception of mental health differences, some respondents mentioned sadness for the loss of land and lifestyles, but there was a “hardiness to how it’s emotionally processed,” Billiot said. “They didn’t express feelings that would be consistent with anxiety or depression.”

The rising waters have hindered the way people make a living, too, including harvesting shrimp for sale—and for themselves—which is no longer possible.

“There is some disbelief that their land can disappear right before their eyes,” Billiot said. “I think this is interesting: There are some pockets where people are so tight-knit that if one family does not have enough food to eat, they’ll say to a neighbor, ‘Hey, I’m coming over for dinner tonight.’ And (the neighbor) says ‘OK. We’re eating at 6.’ There are no questions asked. That shows they care for each other.”

There are ways social workers can help, she said.“I’m a macro social worker, so obviously there are advocacy and policy efforts that could help protect lands.”

Also, work to honor sovereignty can help tribes manage their own lands and prevent things like pipelines, she said.

“I think around the community level, efforts to mobilize communities should be internally led,” but it’s possible others could participate in efforts to mobilize communities—because action is needed, Billiot said.

The last time she went home before COVID spread, she took a photo of wood pilings in the water. Pelicans were sitting on them, and the water was so deep you couldn’t walk out to the area, she said. “The pilings were where our camp used to be.”

Teaching Environmental Justice

One of the courses Christina Erickson teaches is “Environmental Justice and Social Change,” which she said examines the relationship between environmental justice issues and the principles and methods of social change.

It also explores the relationship between environmental damage and damage to human populations, the differential effect of environmental damage on specific populations, and the ways social change agents can mobilize action to correct these injustices, said Erickson, a professor and director of the BSW program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.

The course is required for environmental studies majors, too, she said. It covers micro and macro methods for social change, and Erickson makes students think about their relationship with nature and how that affects their moods, what they see, and “the number of minutes they spend with non-human creations. They also look at how society views nature and the macro forces involved.”

They all take a walking tour and review “how the campus utilizes nature, and I impress on them that they don’t have to go into the woods,” Erickson said. Students have grown up in different ways—from city life to living in a cabin in the woods—and some have little awareness of nature’s beauty.

They learn the history of the environmental movement and how it has changed over time, and ethics is added before moving more into looking at practice and identifying the micro, mezzo and macro levels and how you can create social changes, she said.

Erickson is teaching them to see that humans are interacting with the environment, and the choices they make can be environmentally friendly. She wants them to look at nature like it’s a relationship they have, and realize some people are experiencing environmental burdens like air pollution and no access to healthy foods.

All kinds of students take the class, and Erickson wants them to see themselves as having the ability to be change agents. “Students are taught many ways to work with clients, but they didn’t think about how nature fit into that.”

Student comments have included, “Wow, I didn’t know this is going to be a part of social work.”

Erickson said, “It took me a long time to see things are integrated as a whole, things I didn’t realize were social work too. It took me a long time to realize I’m an environmental social worker.”

When social workers have knowledge about environmental social work, there are many things they can do, she said, including setting up a small environmental justice task force in their organization; gathering in a group and brainstorming ways to set up an office space to evoke the world around them; looking at their energy use; and being aware of how they transport staff members.

“There are strategies people can explore if they think about it,” Erickson said. “It’s kind of like thinking we have a relationship with nature, so how can we be more aggressive in having nature around us?”

The Council on Social Work Education has curricular information for environmental justice and field experiences, she said.

Erickson wrote a textbook, “Environmental Justice As Social Work Practice,” published in 2018.

“I wrote it to show what we’re really missing,” she said, “and to say to social work ‘this is something you can really do.’”

She believes social workers can lead the way for social justice by recognizing their own relationship with nature, learning more, beginning to incorporate environmental justice into their social work, and integrating at least one nature-focused question into all assessments.

“Things done for the natural world benefit us too,” Erickson said, adding that social workers are among the right professionals to help address climate change.

“As social workers, we enter into spaces where there are a lot of unknowns,” Erickson said. “We have to figure out how to help a person or a family. We lead an organization into the future. The topics we talk about are hunger, homelessness and abuse. We are such a brave group.”


Continuing Education Webinars

NASW Joins Climate Group

As part of the American Climate Leadership Summit 2020, 17 national organizations, including NASW, publicly announced the Social Climate Leadership Group, an effort to address the mental health aspects of climate change.

Read the news release at

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Environmental Justice Roots

Feb. 11, 1968:
Memphis Sanitation Strike in Memphis, Tenn. 

City garbage workers took action against unfair treatment and environmental concerns, demanding fair pay and better working conditions. The strike was the first time African-Americans mobilized a broad-based national group to oppose environmental injustices.

Dec. 2, 1970
The Environmental Protection Agency is formed 

September 1982:
Sit-in Against Warren County, N.C.,
PCB Landfill 

This nonviolent sit-in protest mobilized a national, broad-based group, where more than 500 protesters were arrested. Although it did not halt construction of the landfill, it is thought to be the “catalyst for the Environmental Justice Movement.”