How to care for your mental health in the age of climate change and worsening natural disasters
Call or text 800-985-5990 to reach the national Disaster Distress Helpline, or dial 211 to find local mental health resources in Texas.
This story includes discussion of trauma, mental illness and a mention of self-harm. For disaster mental health support, call or text 800-985-5990. You can also call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis. Read our mental health resource guide for more information about the 988 lifeline.
Climate change is ushering in stronger hurricanes, severe droughts, wildfires and other extreme weather events in Texas.
These natural disasters can be devastating, uprooting communities and leaving residents with trauma and a long road to recovery. And it’s hard to not feel hopeless reading headlines about the inevitability of climate change and its role in worsening extreme weather events.
But there are resources for mental health support available year-round and deployed in the wake of natural disasters. Plus, there are steps you can take to manage climate anxiety. Here is more information on how you can take care of your mental health as you confront extreme weather events and climate change.
How do you prepare for a natural disaster when it comes to your mental health?
Control what you can: Your response. The threat of a looming natural disaster, such as a hurricane, can cause anxiety and exacerbate symptoms in those who may already face mental health concerns, said Lane Johnson, a licensed professional counselor and chief of clinical services at the Gulf Bend Center in Victoria. The center is one of the local mental health and behavioral health authorities contracted by the Texas government to help deliver and coordinate mental health care.
“If you’ve got some mental health concerns, you’re already under stress. And, oftentimes, it’s difficult to feel safe,” he said. “If a natural disaster is coming, that just raises the anxiety all the more. We all get frantic and anxious.”
For people with mental health concerns, it’s important to monitor and address day-to-day symptoms, Johnson said. They should also focus on preparing for the natural disaster, like everyone else.
“That’s important not only because technical preparation is important, but being prepared and anticipating (a storm) gives you a sense of control,” said Wayne Young, CEO of the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD in Houston.
That means stocking up on nonperishable food, water, first-aid supplies, gear such as flashlights, cash in case of power outages and charging up your phone. If you have prescriptions, you should also get them refilled in case of long-term disruptions.
You may need proof of your identification, residency, medical needs or immigration status in the aftermath of a disaster, so gather and make copies of those documents ahead of time.
You can find a disaster kit checklist from the federal government here and find more guides on preparing for disasters below:
- The American Red Cross has tipsheets on preparing for and recovering after a natural disaster.
- Southerly has a guide to preparing for winter storms and a “Disaster Glossary” with resources on preparing for natural disasters, heat waves and tornadoes and navigating FEMA aid.
- NPR has guides on getting ready for floods, wildfires, hurricanes and driving in snow.
- The Austin American-Statesman has tips on how to prevent and prepare for wildfires amid Texas droughts.
- The New York Times has tips on how to financially prepare for extreme weather events.
You should also save phone numbers for people and agencies you can look to for help during or after a disaster, Johnson said. Common disaster resources include:
- Call 911 for life-threatening emergencies.
- Text SHELTER and your ZIP code to 43362 to find shelters with help from FEMA. (This may refer you to check with local officials or online.)
- Call or text 800-985-5990 for crisis counseling from SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline.
- Call 800-733-2767 to get help from the American Red Cross, including housing and shelter, financial assistance, health services and mental health assistance.
- Call 211 or 877-541-7905 for information on Texas disaster and social services, including local mental health care resources.
- Call 800-504-7030 if you are low-income and need legal assistance related to natural disasters and documents to get help from the State Bar of Texas.
Seek out a support network. Getting a trusted person to walk you through the steps you need to take to prepare can help ease stress. At the Gulf Bend Center, staffers help their patients go through a checklist of hurricane precautions, Johnson said.
“Look for support systems, be it neighbors or family,” Johnson said. “Don’t try to go it alone.”
Connecting with people who understand you is key, Young said. For example, some people reach out to their faith community.
Take care of your mental health even before disaster strikes. Understanding your mental health, symptoms and effective coping skills before a disaster takes place will help you better self-manage symptoms during moments of stress, Young said.
If you have advance notice before a disaster, such as a hurricane or a storm, it can also help to set aside time to relax or exercise, Young said.
During a disaster, how do you seek mental health help?
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also known as SAMHSA, runs a Disaster Distress Helpline to provide support to people experiencing emotional distress related to disasters, including severe storms, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, disease outbreaks, incidents of mass violence, community unrest and anniversaries of traumatic events or triggering events.
The helpline operates year-round, 24 hours a day and is free and confidential. You can call or text 800-985-5990 to be connected with a trained crisis counselor who can provide counseling, healthy coping tips and more information on signs of emotional distress. Crisis counselors can also refer you to local resources for additional support.
Spanish speakers can press 2 after calling for support in Spanish, and help in other languages is available through a third-party interpretation service by requesting it from the responding counselor. The SAMHSA also offers videophone services online for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
How can natural disasters affect your mental health?
It is normal for people to experience shock in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Some people, like those with existing mental health conditions, may see increased symptoms of stress.
“During adverse circumstances, it’s normal to have abnormal reactions,” Johnson said. “And so we try to help people understand that you’re going to have trouble, but it’s all manageable and we’ll help you manage it.”
Others may go into “overdrive” and focus on helping and recovery efforts, Johnson said. But those individuals may feel symptoms of stress or trauma later on. Here are some symptoms to watch for:
- Headaches or stomachaches.
- Muscle or chest pain.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Changes in appetite.
- Feeling overwhelmed, sad, numb, lonely, or physically or mentally drained.
- Losing motivation or focus.
- Getting frustrated and arguing more frequently.
Most emotional responses and stress symptoms are temporary, but if they persist for two weeks or longer, seek help. Signs of greater emotional distress, according to the SAMHSA, can include the following:
- Feeling helpless or hopeless.
- Excessive smoking, drinking or drug use, including prescription drugs.
- Feeling guilty without being sure why.
- Thinking of hurting yourself or someone else.
- Having difficulty readjusting to home or work life.
Warning signs in children can look like withdrawing from friends and peers, competing for more attention, being unwilling to leave home and becoming aggressive. Teens may also resist authority and “experiment with high-risk behaviors such as underage drinking or prescription drug misuse and abuse,” according to the SAMHSA.
People may also have adverse reactions to situations that remind them of the disaster. For example, for Johnson, the sound of wind made him anxious months after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“I didn’t lose my ability to function, but I had to recognize that I, too, am going to have some sort of trauma reaction,” he said.
These triggers can “renew feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness,” according to the SAMHSA. Trigger events tend to take place during anniversaries of disasters, but they can occur at any time. Doing things you enjoy and talking to others during these events can help.
How do you get help if you’re experiencing mental health concerns after a natural disaster?
See if disaster aid may be available to you. After federally declared disasters, SAMHSA administers grants to help provide more crisis counseling services. Those services are free for people if they reside within a disaster-declared county, said Tiffany Young, a spokesperson for Texas Health and Human Services. You can check federal disaster declarations and resources through FEMA’s website.
Find your local mental health care network. The state contracts with 37 local mental health authorities and two local behavioral health authorities to cover Texas’ 254 counties, according to Texas Health and Human Services. The local authorities can bring in providers from other regions to meet demand after a disaster, Young said. You can call 211 or go to the websites for 211 or mentalhealthtx.org to find your local authority.
See if your employer or health insurance can help. Local mental health authorities can also provide long-term care, Young said. But disaster grants can be limited to a short window of time, said Alison Mohr Boleware, policy director for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. That can make accessing support difficult for those who may still be recovering from a disaster from several years ago, like Harvey.
She suggests checking to see if your employer has an employee assistance program, which may include free therapy sessions, or if your insurance provider covers any mental health care.
Peer support has also been shown to be effective and important to disaster recovery, Boleware said. You can find local support groups through the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Texas, which has chapters across the state.
How to cope with climate or eco-anxiety
It’s normal to experience anxiety or distress related to climate change. Some researchers have begun to use new terms including “climate anxiety,” and “eco-anxiety,” and “eco-grief” to describe mental health conditions influenced by climate change. Even if you have not experienced a natural disaster, news of natural disasters and climate change can be overwhelming. And more people are feeling it. In 2021, Grist reported Google searches for the term “climate anxiety” rose by 565% over 12 months.
“The uncertainty and that kind of threat looms large for everybody,” Young, CEO of the Harris Center, said. “All of the uncertainty creates distress. If we’re not already in a place with strong resiliency and wellness then that can impact us even greater.”
Climate and eco-anxiety, the definitions and characteristics of which are still an area of active research in the mental health field, can also look like grieving, hopelessness and rage, according to Britt Wray, a Stanford University researcher and author of the book “Generation Dread.”
These feelings are a “very healthy and normal response” to the awareness of climate change and its ramifications, but it can become a problem if it hinders a person’s well-being or ability to function, Wray told Smithsonian Magazine.
Mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises and spending time in nature can help calm down your central nervous system, which can become unbalanced from anxiety.
Talking about it and taking action helps. Studies have shown that talking and writing about your emotions can improve your mental health, and confronting fears can reduce anxiety. If you can access a therapist, you might want to try to find a “climate-aware therapist” or one who will help you process your climate anxiety while acknowledging the effects of climate change. The Climate Psychology Alliance is working on a directory of climate-aware therapists. It currently lists more than 100 therapists across the country, including in Austin, Houston and North Texas.
You can also find support among other people with climate change concerns. The groups Good Grief Network, the Climate Journal Project, The All We Can Save Project, Eco-Anxious Stories and Parents For The Planet help facilitate discussions.
You can’t address climate change alone, but taking steps, such as preparing your home for disasters, volunteering in the wake of natural disasters and protecting your local environment, can help you and your community.
The New York Times has more mental health tips and ideas for ways to help your community address climate change, and NPR has a guide on grappling with climate anxiety.
More books on climate anxiety include “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety” by Sarah Jaquette Ray and “Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety” by Megan Kennedy-Woodard and Patrick Kennedy-Williams.
Erin Douglas contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Google, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, the State Bar of Texas and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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