Las Vegas Sun

October 2, 2022

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Heating Up:

Effects of climate change reflected by earth, air, fire, water ­— and anxiety


Shutterstock photo illustration

In Las Vegas, where climate change has been a long-established threat to residents’ physical health, the alarm and stress of a hotter, drier future also takes a toll, including “anxiety-related responses, as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Editor’s Note: This story is adapted from “Heating Up,” part of the Las Vegas Sun podcast, that explored extreme heat’s impact on Las Vegas resident’s mental and physical health.

When UNLV senior Elia Del Carmen Solano-Patricio looked out the window of her Airbnb in Irvine, Calif., she saw flames rising in the nearby mountains and scorch marks on the ground. A wildfire was approaching the apartment, where she had moved from Las Vegas during the pandemic to be closer to family.

In quick succession, the sky darkened. She smelled the smoke and received an alert on her phone from police instructing her to evacuate the area.

Driving alone, she zig-zagged through fallen trees and weaved around traffic in the city, hoping she would make it to her family friend’s house in Fullerton, about 20 miles away. She worried about her family situated throughout Southern California.

“All while seeing the flames in my rearview mirror,” she said. “That was terrifying.”

The fires triggered Solano-Patricio’s post-traumatic stress disorder, something she was diagnosed with in 2018.

The heat and smell of burning earth coupled with the fear for the well-being of her family would have been overwhelming had she not learned how to quell these anxieties in therapy, Solano-Patricio said.

She uses UNLV’s counseling services while she majors in urban studies and does policy research with Brookings Mountain West, much of which focuses on solar capacity and other climate-adjacent issues in the state.

“Now I can talk about it because I’m here and safe,” she said. “Normally, I would be digging my nails into my hands because I would be stressed out. But I focused, breathing, trying to just get out.”

An American Psychiatric Association poll revealed that more than half of Americans were “somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health.” The poll also showed an increase in Americans who said they agree that climate change is probably or definitely affecting mental health, a group that grew from 47% in 2019 to 68% in 2020.

Ripples of this issue exist in Las Vegas, where climate change has been a long-established threat to residents’ physical health. But the alarm and stress of a hotter, drier future also takes a toll, including “anxiety-related responses, as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders,” according to the American Psychiatric Association, especially among low-income communities, the homeless population and those with pre-existing mental health disorders.

Click to enlarge photo

Elia Del Carmen Solano-Patricio

Hopeless resignation

Solano-Patricio was raised by her mother, who is a housekeeper. They lived in “complete poverty,” Solano-Patricio said, much like her other family members in California, some of whom are undocumented.

Solano-Patricio said that for many low-income families, including hers, there is a general acceptance of climate change’s impact, such as wildfires, because it is not economically feasible to move elsewhere.

“They don’t have the kind of job security that somebody with citizenship likely has in order to get a job here in Vegas and be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to leave California and not have my family in danger,’ ” she said. “So, for them, it’s kind of a way of life. They just consider the risk a part of living.”

Poverty in adulthood is connected to depressive and anxiety disorders, while childhood poverty is linked with “lower school achievement; worse cognitive, behavioral, and attention-related outcomes; higher rates of delinquency, depressive and anxiety disorders; and higher rates of almost every psychiatric disorder in adulthood,” according to a 2018 Psychiatric Times study.

These mental health disorders will be exacerbated by climate change’s impacts seen in Las Vegas, such as extreme heat, said Chris Kearny, chair of UNLV’s psychology department.

Some medications for psychiatric problems make an individual prone to irritability or dehydration when it is especially hot out, Kearney said. He added that high temperatures have been linked to increased depression and suicide rates.

“We tend to think of climate change as something that’s happening in the future that we have time to sort of correct,” he said. “But when we talk about mental health challenges, that’s a very immediate real-life, real-world today kind of consequence of climate change that we need to take seriously.”

Communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change. According to an Environmental Protection Agency report from September 2021, minority groups — including Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians — are more likely to live in high climate change-impacted areas.

The same report states that Blacks are 40% more likely to live in areas with increased mortality rates because of climate-induced elevated temperatures when compared with non-Blacks. Latinos and Native Americans are more likely to be affected by labor losses in outdoor industries subject to extreme heat, while Asian Americans are more likely to live in coastal areas affected by climate-driven flooding.

“When people are merely always trying to survive, and taking what they can get, it affects you mentally,” said Erika Washington, executive director of Make It Work Nevada, which supports women of color in issues like pay equity and affordable child care. “Those things wear on you ... and someone who lives in survival mode is naturally not going to be healthy mentally.”

Climate change and mental health

Elizabeth Haase, a faculty member at UNR’s school of medicine who is chair of the American Psychiatric Association Climate Committee, has researched the connection between climate change and mental health.

She noted “an incredible rise” in anxiety and anger among young people and “if you ask the question, you will often find that it is contributing significantly to the way they’re feeling about what’s going on in their world.”

When attempting to define climate anxiety, as well as how it compares with clinical anxieties, Haase said the feelings can be explained as an existential or death anxiety.

It can also be seen as continuous traumatic stress disorder, something often seen in children who experience neglect long term. This model “includes the idea that grown-ups are not responding and are invalidating the complaints that you bring up,” Haase said.

“We know a lot about how that affects the development of the brain and the kind of numbness that can develop, and the kind of dysregulation of emotion that can develop,” Haase said.

Climate anxiety could also be informed by victims of natural disasters, she added. Natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes and heat waves have been aggravated by climate change.

A February 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded ​​that “disaster exposure is associated with the development of post-traumatic stress symptoms in youths.”

The study followed more than 1,700 children — with an average age of 9 — who experienced either Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida and Louisiana in 1992; Hurricane Charley, a 2004 disaster that swept Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina; Hurricane Ike, occurring in 2005 and hitting Texas and Florida, and 2008’s Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophe that ripped through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, among other states.

Emily Lewis, owner of the outpatient therapy practice Veridian Wellness in Henderson, specializes in anxiety, depression, the impacts of trauma, and narcissistic family members. She said her older patients tend to reflect on the climate crisis through their past mistakes — how they could have made changes to their lives and made the world different.

Teenagers, on the other hand, are angry they are left to deal with the damage inflicted by past generations, she said.

Lewis also said climate anxiety is a distinctive issue for the way it affects mental health providers, like in the way the COVID-19 pandemic does

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that about 2 in 5 psychiatrists experience burnout. Even more health care workers felt this way throughout the pandemic, with over 60% of frontline workers experiencing negative mental impacts, according to the 2021 Frontline Health Care Workers Survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“I don’t think that the anxiety associated with climate change is going to go away anytime soon,” Lewis said. “I think it’s only going to get worse.”

The urban effect

Beyond the blazing Las Vegas summers made hotter by climate change’s impact is the urban heat island effect, which makes cities and their pavement, buildings and other heat-absorbing infrastructure hotter than rural areas.

Urban heat islands are not caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions, but they are a symptom of a heating world.

A 2020 study from UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute found that Las Vegas “ranked as the most intense urban heat island in the United States in both daytime and nighttime metrics between 2004 and 2013.”

The same study found the average annual temperature in Las Vegas has increased each year since 1970.

The urban heat island effect is particularly cruel to homeless people, said Christopher Stream, director of the School of Public Policy and Leadership at UNLV. It is especially pronounced here because Las Vegas seems perpetually poised between addressing drought and extreme heat, he said.

The state Legislature in 2021 passed Assembly Bill 356, which dictates that water allocated by the Southern Nevada Water Authority can’t be used to irrigate grass. The water authority said the law, which comes into play Jan. 1, 2027, will lead to removing 30% of the 13,000 acres of grass in Southern Nevada. But the consequence is fewer green spaces to cool the city, further contributing to the urban heat island effect, Stream said.

Stream also said homeless people are generally offered band-aid solutions like cooling centers or homeless courtyards, which are renovated buildings that include medical, housing and employment services.

When adapting these buildings, Stream said the city should consider how the renovation can offset heat in the city as well as how the building itself will be a refuge from the heat.

“We’ve thought of heat as something that we repel and keep cool internal, but we have not thought about how (buildings are) connected to the resiliency of our cities and our populations, and that’s a little bit of where we need to go as a community,” he said.

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A man rests at the Dula Community Center Monday, July 12, 2021. The community center was turned into a cooling center for people trying to get out of the record-breaking heat. YASMINA CHAVEZ

Heat and homelessness

On days of intense heat — the record in Las Vegas is 117 degrees — local groups reach out to homeless people to keep them safe.

Crisis outreach teams with HELP of Southern Nevada provide the homeless with water, hats and rides to cooling centers, said Louis Lacey, who directs the teams.

Extreme heat killed 153 people, including 37 homeless people, last year in Clark County, according to the Health District.

On any given night, there are more than 5,500 homeless people in Las Vegas, according to 2019 data from Nevada Homeless Alliance. Those with alcohol or drug abuse issues are at higher risk of heat-related illness or death.

Albert Nelson used HELP’s services in 2020 and landed in the hospital with heat stroke and subsequently COVID-19.

Nelson said he knew the heat was getting to him. “I got to the point where I couldn’t think straight, but I knew that I needed help. There are people out there who don’t even know that they need help,” he said.

After a six-week hospital stay, Nelson, with the assistance of a HELP case manager, got into emergency housing, where he stayed for about a year before getting his own apartment.

Case managers remain with their clients as they maintain their independent living, Lacey said.

“Wraparound services are very important because it’s one thing to alleviate someone’s immediate need for housing, but how do we sustain that housing? How do we keep them from returning to the streets?” he said.

Still, some homeless people refuse services, said Lacey, who also once lived on the streets in Las Vegas.

“The trauma of everyday life on the street” combined with extreme heat intensifies the hopelessness many homeless people feel, he said.

“It’s hot during the day with the sun, and the sun is trying to murder you,” Lacey said.

And during the hottest times, the night isn’t much better. “There’s no escape from the heat, and people die out here regularly in the summer,” he said.

Government’s role

Kristen Averyt, a research professor at UNLV focusing on climate resilience and urban sustainability, said the state’s focus has targeted emissions reductions and green vehicles.

Nevada also joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of 24 states and Puerto Rico that committed to the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal of maintaining a lower-than-1.5-degrees-Celsius increase in temperature.

Averyt said the state saw “two fairly active legislative sessions with respect to climate change,” including new emissions-reduction targets that would bring Nevada to net zero emissions by 2050.

Senate Bill 448, passed in May 2021, revised how the state governs public utilities, including requiring power companies to submit plans to increase electric vehicles and other transportation — the sector that contributes most to greenhouse gas emissions in Nevada, the bill states.

“We’re looking forward to seeing what emerges in the fall and in the coming session,” Averyt said. “Hopefully we can use that as a model for how we not only address climate in terms of immediate response, say we are hit with a massive heat wave, how do we make investments in long-term adaptations to ensure that we’re resilient when these particular events do happen?”

Gov. Steve Sisolak in his State of the State speech said Nevada is addressing climate issues and plans to derive about half of its energy from clean sources by 2030. Additionally, the state has a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

That seems like a tough-to-reach goal. A report from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection analyzed greenhouse gas emissions and projections from 1990 to 2041, finding that while the state has implemented mitigation efforts, it still falls below its intended goals.

This report was based on 2019’s Senate Bill 254, which established emissions targets based on 2005 greenhouse gas emission levels. The report anticipated the state will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 24% below 2005 levels by 2030, 21 percentage points below the goal of a 45% reduction.

Sisolak also pointed to the state’s five new solar plants, which grew Nevada’s solar capacity by 36%, he said, and lifted Nevada to first in the country for solar power generation.

“I’ll convene members of my Cabinet, scientists and climate leaders to create a statewide strategy for dealing with extreme heat,” Sisolak said in his Feb. 23 address. “We will continue leading the fight against climate change and creating good jobs in the process, because a resilient, clean-energy economy is part of a strong, diversified economy.”

On the other hand, individual changes can be just as important in easing climate anxieties, many of which are rooted in government inaction, especially among young people, Haase said.

Group therapy sessions can be helpful, but Haase emphasized equity work as a form of therapy, where an individual addresses the damage associated with climate change within their own community so they may feel their impact more significantly.

“Taking a climate inventory of your own life is a good place to start, and make small changes,” she said. “One thing at a time.”

Lewis also said equity work is a form of actionable change she recommends to her clients with climate anxiety. Her personal connection to the crisis lies in her fears for the world her three grandchildren and future generations will live in, a sentiment her patients have also expressed.

To ease this worry, Lewis said she has been vegan for the past six years, as scaling back on buying and eating animal products like meat and dairy can decrease one’s impact on the environment.

A February article from scientists at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that a quick phaseout of animal agriculture — namely livestock production, which contributes significant greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — could stabilize 30 years of greenhouse gas levels and offset 68% of carbon dioxide emissions.

“Control the controllable and mitigate your intake of the rest,” Lewis said. “And you know what, so many people, they want someone to talk about it with. They want someone to process with. And that’s a huge piece too.”

Jessica Hill contributed reporting to this story.