The relationship between climate change and psychological distress: a case study from Tuvalu
AffiliationMelbourne School of Psychological Sciences
Document TypePhD thesis
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© 2018 Dr Kari Gibson
There is growing consensus that climate change represents a major threat to mental health. This thesis explored the relationship between climate change and psychological distress among residents of Tuvalu, a Pacific Island atoll nation and Least Developed country, where people’s livelihoods and wellbeing are considered to be extremely vulnerable to climate change. The transactional theory of stress and coping theory was used to guide understanding of the complex pathways through which climate change stressors might cause distress. The thesis employed an exploratory sequential mixed methods research design. In Study 1, participant observation and interviews with key informants and lay residents were conducted to investigate four topics. These were (1) the significance of climate change stressors, relative to other stressors impacting residents’ lives, (2) encounters with and interpretations of climate change stressors, (3) ways of coping with climate change, and (4) cultural idioms of distress and definitions of ‘normal’ functioning. The findings of Study 1 confirmed the salience of climate change stressors in Tuvalu and the ubiquity of resident encounters with both unfolding environmental impacts of climate change, and threatening messages about climate change that are conveyed in public discourse. The findings also revealed diverse means of coping with climate change, which appeared to influence residents’ levels of distress. The results of Study 1 informed the development of a working model outlining stages of the stress and coping process relevant to climate change stressors in Tuvalu, and the socio-demographic factors likely to affect each stage. An interview schedule was also developed on the basis of Study 1, which incorporated a standardised measure of distress that was adapted to improve cultural validity. Study 2 investigated stages of the stress and coping process as they unfold in relation to climate change stressors in Tuvalu. Semi-structured interviews with 98 residents were conducted over seven weeks of fieldwork. The findings revealed that a relatively high proportion of participants were experiencing scores for psychological distress that are normally regarded as clinically significant. Levels of distress associated with climate change stressors specifically were also high, and for a majority of participants, were reported to cause impairment in one or more areas of daily life. Participants’ appraisals of how problematic climate change stressors were proved to be a strong predictor of climate change distress and a more important predictor of distress than level of exposure to stressors, or coping strategies used in response to them. Thesis findings affirm the importance of climate change for mental health and the relevance of multiple types of climate change stressor to individual distress. The findings also confirm the utility of the transactional theory of stress and coping as a framework for understanding how climate change leads to distress, and why distress varies across individuals. The thesis makes an important contribution to the emerging evidence base concerning climate change and mental health, and provides a new basis for advocacy efforts and decision-making by governments and funding bodies concerned with climate change adaptation.
KeywordsPacific Islands; Polynesia; Tuvalu; climate change; global warming; mental health; psychological distress; global mental health
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