New Delhi: Impacts of climate change is far-reaching and it will shape our future in unprecedented ways. Today, it is widely accepted that climate change-induced destruction is one of the world’s leading health risks. From exposure to extreme heat and rising risks of infectious diseases such as dengue, the wide-ranging effects of climate change pose a major public health challenge.
While the impacts of climate change on physical health have been studied, little attention has been paid on how it affects people’s mental health. The issue has also been largely ignored in policy discussions.
From post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in survivors of extreme weather events to rage and frustration among activists and scientists as well as growing climate-related anxiety among the young, recent studies have shown how climate change has wide-ranging and far-reaching mental health impacts.
There is a growing consensus among scientists that climate change is escalating the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, wildfires, storms and floods. Extreme weather events are now affecting more people than they did just a couple of decades ago, causing disruptions in their ways of living.
Extreme heat leading to aggression, domestic violence
Extreme heat due to rising temperatures has been directly correlated with sleep loss, increased aggression and domestic violence. In severe cases, heat strokes can lead to delirium following a sequential pattern of agitation and confusion, which could even be fatal in uncontrolled surroundings.
Often, people affected by climate-related disasters lose their homes, jobs or even the lives of their friends, family and pets. This is accompanied by profound and sometimes long-term psychological effects including trauma, chronic stress, anxiety and depression, in addition to and partly due to the financial costs incurred in damages.
In a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, led by the University of York and National Center for Social Research, researchers found that people whose homes are damaged by storms or flooding are more likely to experience mental health issues.
The study analysed data from a large national mental health survey conducted by the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) in the UK in 2014. One of the questions asked to the participants was whether their home had been damaged by wind, rain, snow or flood in the past six months, which included a particularly eventful period during which the UK saw severe winter storms and extensive flooding.
It revealed that people with damaged houses are 50 per cent more likely to have poor mental health. Even when the damage is relatively minor and does not force them to leave their homes.
“This is reflective of the huge impact storms and flooding have on people’s lives as alongside the physical damage to homes and businesses, there is the emotional damage to the sense of security that many people derive from their homes,” said Professor Hilary Graham, from the University of York and lead author of the study, in a press release.
A similar scenario has been witnessed in India, with unprecedented extreme weather events making news almost every year. “The people of Kerala, for example, have suffered two consecutive years of major flooding, both times around the second week of August. I know friends and family that are natives to Kerala that are thinking whether this is becoming a yearly occurrence,” Krishna AchutaRao, an associate professor at the Center for Atmospheric Sciences in IIT Delhi told to ThePrint.
“It is certainly something that is constantly on people’s minds and I can only imagine that if you are experiencing such events repeatedly, it cannot be good for mental health,” he added.
Droughts and farmer suicides
Changing weather patterns are also having an impact on agriculture. Prolonged droughts accompanied by extreme heat and rainfall cause significant damage to crop yields. In our country, where more than half the population is employed in agriculture, farmers are increasingly facing consecutive years of crop losses, worsening their debt burden.
Droughts are slow-moving disasters that can tear apart previously stable agrarian communities, leaving farmers in deep financial crises. This is increasingly contributing to rising suicidal tendencies among farmers.
There are numerous studies to show how climate change can impact mental health. But there is also a growing concern about the lack of action to counter this trend. And the question also arises if we should wait for studies in order to accept that extreme weather and its consequent losses affect people’s mental health.
As Dr Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist, board member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-founder of Climate Psychiatry Alliance, puts it, while gathering data about mental health consequences are important. Susteren says that we need fewer resources going into research on the problem and more emphasis on promoting sustainable living. “Human beings don’t need more studies to know that when someone’s house is blown away or burned down or flooded, when they have lost their belongings, or seen their friends or family get injured, it is going to take a heavy emotional toll on them.”
To think about the enormity of climate change and the urgent need for transformative action can be overwhelming and downright paralysing. Everyone, from scientists to journalists and activists, have at some point or the other experienced anxiety or stress about the current ecological situation.
“Depending on the person, their temperament, resilience, and life experiences, the psychological impacts can be in a spectrum between a slight disruption and catastrophic,” Susteren told ThePrint.
“People have told me about their friends or relatives that won’t leave the house anymore because they are absolutely terrified of climate change, others have fleeting thoughts that they may deal with by deflecting, disavowing, or somehow diminishing them,” she added.
Delhi-based clean air campaigner and environmental activist Bhavreen Kandhari said, “For me, the catalyst was my children. The reason I got so connected to environmental issues was because of them. When they were 4 or 5 years old, they would suffer from chronic cough that would last for months and when we would leave the city or the country, it would be gone. It made me realize that the air [in Delhi] is itself toxic, especially for my children.”
She recalled how the anxiety of it bothered her. “I kept wondering how long can we keep up this way and rely on medication to cure the symptoms when the real disease is much deeper. It is heartbreaking to realise that this is only the beginning and our children will face the worst consequences in the future.”
Kandhari has been an environmental activist for over a decade. She had participated in and also helped organise the ‘Fridays for Future’ protests in Delhi last month, which were part of the week-long global protests against government and corporate inaction on climate change.
“What is frustrating and disheartening is that we are failing everywhere, whether it is the local municipal authorities or the governments or the citizens, we are just not serious about it. It is so difficult to even convince your friends and family members to take the issue seriously, which further adds to the emotional toll,” added Kandhari.
Climate scientists have been raising awareness about the effects of environmental degradation since the beginning of the 20th century. They have faced their own challenges while communicating with the public and policymakers, fighting off climate deniers who question their motives and continuing their research in an unbiased manner.
Climate-related losses in terms of health hazards, extinction of species, altering landscapes and a dark feeling that not enough has been done to stop them often leads to strong emotional responses such as sadness, despair, anger, fear, helplessness, hopelessness and stress.
“Eco-anxiety”, “climate grief” and “ecological grief” are different terms used by experts to refer to the mental toll on people when they understand the magnitude of losses incurred due to climate change and the lack of necessary action by those in power.
“When you have been in the field for more than 10 or 20 years, it seems like a long movie,” said AchutaRao. “By now, you have seen many of the predicted scenarios play out in real life. There is a perverse part of you that wants to say, ‘well, we were right!’ but, at the same time the other part of you wishes that you were wrong because the consequences are so terrible.”
“In my interactions with the Indian and international scientific community and other experts on climate change, I see a wide appreciation and concern for the dangers that are ahead of us. However, there are some people who still think of it as a geopolitical game and therefore they need to protect their own interests whether they are from India or somewhere else,” he added.
Scientists, in particular, have faced pushback from climate deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists. Those with nefarious interests have constantly attacked scientific findings and researchers by questioning their integrity, and in some cases have even given death threats.
According to AchutaRao, “this has forced scientists to constantly be on the defensive, it has literally sapped the energy out of one whole generation of scientists. This has been a source of great anger and frustration in the scientific community. Many brilliant scientists have had to work under this dark cloud; you can only imagine the great work they could have done without this pushback”.
Mental health impacts of climate change also pose a new challenge for psychoanalysts and psychiatrists. It is a different kind of emotional toll that is likely to affect more and more people in the future, and hence must be understood and dealt with accordingly.
“It is absolutely an unprecedented challenge in psychiatry, because climate change evokes a range of emotions. It isn’t just grief, the emotional toll of climate disruption includes, grief, loss, despair, rage, pre-traumatic stress condition, and paradoxically also resolve and determination for action. Moreover, climate change impacts amplify any pre-existing conditions,” said Susteren.
“It [climate change] is the most challenging adversity that humans have ever faced because it literally involves our survival. And it is only getting started. Once people fully realise what we have done to ourselves and that the consequences are only going to get worse, not only are some people going to crumble but sometimes it also tends to bring out the worst in people that are less empathic,” she added.
Our mental health affects every aspect of our lives – work, relationships, finances, community participation and physical health. While research so far has provided a solid base for understanding how climate change impacts mental health, more work is needed to study the different aspects of it and how it is connected to other aspects of our lives. It is important to understand how we can deal with it in order to better advise community and policy actions.
Good mental health is essential to cope with and make the best of what life has to offer people, including climate change. It is not something that human beings can take for granted.