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“Climate change and mental health issues”
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“Climate change and mental health issues”

Climate change is a fast growing threat to human health. Nancy Saili, 25, a Correspondent from Solwezi in Zambia, argues that as global temperatures rise, the impact will be on mental as well as physical health.

Climate change brings serious health risks through injury, death, ill-health, and mobility impacts, especially in developing countries where most economies lack the ability to cope. The impact is mostly on children, the elderly and women. Recent extreme weather events have led to increase in deaths, respiratory diseases, immune disorders and infectious diseases.

Climate change is unlikely to cause entirely new diseases but can contribute to the emergence of new strains of viruses that can infect humans. The incidence, range, and seasonality of many existing health disorders will be altered –  for example, warmer and wetter weather can provide ideal conditions for disease carrying mosquitoes to flourish, promoting the spread of mosquito borne diseases.

But the effects of climate change on human health go far beyond physical health. The after-shocks of climate events such as floods, heat waves, rising sea level, loss of land, forced migration or drought, include mental health problems for victims.

Trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-PTSD and depression are all mental health ailments linked to climate change. Worry, depression, substance abuse, aggression, anxiety and even suicide arise among those who cannot cope. For example, the loss of a loved one or home to a flood or hurricane can cause trauma. Being physically disabled by an earthquake could cause depression. For others it could be day to day despair and frustration arising from prolonged droughts and the resulting water and food shortages, and for those who haven’t yet experienced these events it could be anxiety or fear. Survivors of traumatic events are affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, denial, fear, frustration and guilt. They also experience additional symptoms including isolation, insomnia, confusion and withdrawal. Children could re-live the trauma through nightmares.

Traumatic events further increase or trigger mental health ailments including psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia in individuals who may already be vulnerable. In areas prone to life threatening events such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods, people are at risk of developing PTSD. Research suggests that extreme heat exposure can lead to physical as well as psychological exhaustion, leading to aggressive behaviour in people. In both developed and developing countries many farmer suicides are linked to drought and floods. Economic hardships arise from crop failures. Farmers not only find themselves falling victim to debt but crop failure also leads to increase in the cost of food and other goods. Inability to purchase basic goods could stress a family.

While it is important to focus on the more immediately life threatening diseases, mental health should not be overlooked as a public health issue. It affects peoples’ quality of life, physical, social well-being and economic productivity. It also affects the families and communities of the mentally ill. Mental health problems cost nations millions in gross national product and also lead to loss of workdays – for both the mentally ill and their caregivers.

An increase in mental health disorders will pose a bigger challenge for low income areas that have few or no disaster response teams equipped with resources and skills to deal with mental health issues related to climate change. In such area patients may be vulnerable to low quality care, abuse and human rights violations. Furthermore, they and their families may also experience social stigma and discrimination.

Being aware of the psychological effects of traumatic climate events and creating safe spaces in communities for people to freely heal and mourn loved ones could go a long way in dealing with mental health. Community choirs, social gatherings, and financial advisory networks are some local actions that help increase local resilience against depression in communities. There is need for mental health services that help identify and protect people from developing any kind of mental illness. These include debt-abolition or economic support for farmers and helping those who are otherwise cut off from social support services.

Mitigation and adaptation to climate change play a big role in avoiding mental health illness, as studies suggest that the more the damage, the more likely a person is to have a mental health problem. It is also important for people to be taught how to identify symptoms of mental health problems and how to respond to them. Mental health services should be long-term and fully supported from local to global level, especially for low-income disaster survivors, to reduce the negative effects of mental illness on patients and their local and global communities.

References and further reading:
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/european-heatwave-deaths-skyrocket-climate-study-170804234140485.html

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5007542/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/refugees-suffer-a-higher-rate-of-psychotic-disorders/

https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ea_apa_mental_health_report_web.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/22250871/

http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2010-14128-010

photo credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Alliance against hunger in Somalia via photopin (license)

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About me: I am very passionate about the environment, human rights, young girls and women related issues. I am a writer and hope to teach creative writing in the future. I love art, photography and film and like to use them as tools to address various issues facing us all.

I am currently a PEPFAR DREAMS ambassador, a youth voice at Global Dialogues Trust and a Climate Tracker/coordinator at the climate tracker Africa hub.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

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