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Depression, anxiety, PTSD: The mental impact of climate change

3/15/2017, 6 a.m.
It's a dream many city-dwellers long for: moving to a spacious house surrounded by greenery in the countryside, where they ...
Major depression has been discovered to be the single largest cause of disability in the world, despite that fact, it routinely goes unrecognized, undiagnosed and untreated. (Photo courtesy/BET))

— It's a dream many city-dwellers long for: moving to a spacious house surrounded by greenery in the countryside, where they plan to raise their family.

In 1996, Heather Shepherd, now 50, and her family did just that. Moving away from the congestion and noise of their north London home, they migrated to a 17th-century farmhouse that they would renovate and make their sanctuary.

Their village near Shrewsbury in Shropshire had just 70 residents, according to Shepherd, whom they would get to know well.

But two years later, not long after work was completed on their rural home, they got a sign of what it really meant to live in their new village: It was prone to flooding.

"We were about to get everything back to normal and have everything done, but the flood stopped everything," Shepherd said. "It was frustrating."

Her experience would make Shepherd realize not only the economic and physical repercussions this form of natural disaster would have on both her and her family, as they risked losing everything, but also the effect it would have on her thinking -- her mental health.

With floods -- as well as storms, heat waves and droughts -- expected to increase in frequency thanks to climate change, the impact such trauma may have on the minds of those affected is something doctors, policymakers and governments are considering when planning services to help populations at-risk.

A fear of water

On this occasion, in 1998, Shepherd's home was somewhat spared: Only parts of the house were flooded, and no furniture was ruined. Their new walls and floors were mainly affected. Others in the village were not as lucky, hinting at what was still to come.

Two years after that, in 2000, the real flood hit.

"We could hear the water from three miles away," Shepherd said, likening the sound to that of a thundering waterfall, drowning out your voice. "It was that sort of sound, and you knew it was coming your way."

That fall was the wettest on record to that point all over England, Wales and Northern Ireland, leaving many towns -- including Shrewsbury -- flooded. Though the town has a history of flooding, if rainfall and storms continue to increase over time, as predicted by global warming, so will water levels across the country, exacerbating the vulnerability of already at-risk towns, like Shepherd's.

A flood warning had been issued by the UK Environment Agency, giving Shepherd's family two hours to get ready. With her husband and two sons, she frantically worked to prepare and protect their home.

They lifted furniture till it almost touched the ceiling; hid boxes, valuables and treasured possessions upstairs; and even left their chickens to neighbors' care and sought temporary homes for their cats and dogs.

"It was a race against time," Shepherd said. "There was no time to think or calculate. ... You just work like there is no tomorrow."

Then, the flooding arrived, and the family could only stand in 2-foot-deep water and watch things float into their home.