September 2021 Champion!

Jennifer Barkin, MS, PhD

Associate Professor of Community Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, GA

Dr. Jennifer Barkin

As the climate crisis intensifies, things don’t get just get challenging in the physical world – our mental health is also affected. And not only our reaction to what’s happening now; knowing what’s coming also can create dread.

At Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia, researcher Jennifer Barkin is developing an assessment tool to see how people respond mentally to such changes. The tool, which she’s calling the Climate Distress Index, will be a checklist of things that concern people, on a scale of how much concern they have.

To develop the scorecard, Barkin and her colleagues have been interviewing people on how extreme weather events affect their outlooks – things like farmers’ worries about drought, and mothers’ worries about heat illness affecting their children. The goal is a brief self-report assessment, totaled across items, reflecting an individual’s level of distress related to climate change.

Right now, there are 20 indicators, Barkin says. Some examples: whether a person feels that what he or she does in response to the crisis matters; the level of confidence that the person has in technology and government to respond, and whether a person thinks there is enough time to bring control climate change under control.

“How we handle this right now is critical. The time for incrementalism is long gone,” she says. As vice chair of Mercer’s Community Medicine Department, she has inserted climate change material into the curriculum.

Americans’ levels of concern can range from none to deep. But deep concern does not imply pathology; it can be a reasonable response to the facts, says Barkin, an associate professor with a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

Instead, low concern might be bad. For instance, not knowing about climate change might reduce fear but make people less likely to act, Barkin says: “If you’re not educated on it, you might not be distressed about it.”

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report documents the danger. “Its message is clear,” Barkin says. While nobody enjoys bad news, hopefully, in this instance, it is a motivator.”

Taking action can be a great coping mechanism, Barkin says. Similarly, she says, self-talk can be helpful, but just saying we’ll get through it because the world has gotten through crises before is not helpful. “This is different, because it’s systemic and there’s a critical time element,” she says.