School of Medicine professor examines impact of climate change on mental health

Jennifer Barkin
Dr. Jennifer Barkin

Mercer University School of Medicine professor is leading a team that is building an index to measure the impact of climate change on mental health. 

Dr. Jennifer Barkin, associate professor of community medicine and obstetrics and gynecology, already developed the Barkin Index of Maternal Functioning to assess how a woman is functioning in new motherhood

Now, she’s working on creating the Climate Distress Index to examine how and to what degree changes in the environment affect a person’s mental health. 

“We’re looking for people to tell us things that add to their stress about climate and things that detract,” said Dr. Barkin, a member of the executive committee of Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action. “What makes the score go up and what makes the score go down?” 

The idea that climate change affects mental health is fairly new but growing in recognition. In 2017, the American Psychological Association defined “ecoanxiety” as a chronic fear of environmental doom. It’s sometimes referred to in mainstream media as “climate anxiety.”  

The Climate Distress Index will create a quantifiable measure of that fear, which will allow researchers to better study ecoanxiety and help clinicians understand their patients, Dr. Barkin said. 

Dr. Barkin, a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health-trained biostatistician and psychiatric epidemiologist, is working on the project with Dr. Katharine Mach, an associate professor at the University of Miami who is involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeCarolann Curry, associate professor and medical reference librarian at Mercer; Saswati Upadhyay, a graduate student in Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health; and Maggie Bridges Kearney, a second-year student in Mercer’s School of Medicine. 

To create the index, the team is interviewing agricultural workers, mothers and Coastal Floridians about how extreme weather events affect their mental health. Extreme weather events may include extreme heat, drought, flooding, wildfires and storms. 

Such events are increasing in frequency. Climate-related disasters from 2000-2019 increased by nearly 55% to 6,681 when compared to 1980-1999, according to a report from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

Kearney is from Brinson, a small town outside of Bainbridge in Southwest Georgia. Her dad is a farmer, and she’s been recruiting and interviewing agricultural workers for the project. 

“What we’re seeing is there’s certainly some mental anguish and mental distress related to these extreme weather events,” Kearney said.  

Farmers and agricultural workers depend on the weather for their livelihood, and extreme weather events can affect how much money they make. For example, extreme drought means farmers need to pay more for water usage and electricity to get the water out of the ground. 

“And they may not be able to make money on crops, or if they are, their margins are really, really small,” Kearney said. 

This causes stress and anxiety surrounding whether they can afford to run their business or support their employees, she said. 

Kearney said what she’s learning will impact her future work as a physician in a rural, agricultural community. 

“This is something that a lot of my patients could potentially be struggling with — mental wellness and mental health related to climate,” she said. “It’s something that could affect my patients’ day-to-day life, so I think it’s important research, and I appreciate the opportunity that I’ve had to work on this project.” 

Dr. Barkin and her team recently received recognition for their work. In February, the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology published the paper “Effects of extreme weather events on child mood and behavior,” of which Dr. Barkin was the lead author. 

The paper demonstrated how climate change-related extreme weather events had the potential to impact mood and behavior in children. Post-traumatic stress was the most common mental health effect and was often combined with depression and/or anxiety. 

For the paper, researchers looked at extreme weather events and common themes related to mental health.  

“One of the common themes is good parental support for children and good social support for children are protective against a chronic, long-term mental illness path,” Dr. Barkin said. “Something that can be more devastating for a child is if the parents aren’t around at the time of the event.” 

The ability to cope also can impact mental health. 

“Are they able to take the event and reframe it so that it’s an opportunity for growth? Or can they find some kind of good in it?” Dr. Barkin said.  

That’s easier to do if it’s an isolated weather event. Chronic weather events, such as continued flooding, for example, can be harder to cope with, she said. 

Dr. Barkin’s work has prompted invitations to speak at the Georgia Environmental Justice Education and Awareness Symposium and the Climate Change and Clinical Practice Symposium. In addition, she was invited to participate as an expert in an online discussion about climate change and medical education hosted by the New England Journal of Medicine


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