A warming planet is changing our minds

By Busani Bafana

August 11, 2022

Wonder Muyambo believes his mental, social and economic well-being were better before several climate-related hazards affected him, his family and community in eastern Zimbabwe.

Chimanimani District was one of the areas affected by tropical cyclone Idai, which left more than 1,300 people dead and destroyed infrastructure and crops worth more than $700 million in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.

Muyambo lost relatives, his home and domestic animals in the March 2019 disaster.

“I lost seven goats and 20 road runners, which were my family’s source of income and food,” he recalls. “I was stressed for a long period of time. I lost some of my relatives and I am having challenges forgetting about the incident. Yet, the impact of climate change is ongoing.”

Challenges such as depression, anxiety and stress affected many community members, says Muyambo, who has received help from the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI) Zimbabwe and the Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organization (TSURO) in dealing with mental health and psychosocial difficulties.

Worsening mental health

Climate change has worsened the already bad state of global mental health.  Nearly 1 billion people are living with mental health conditions, but three out of four people in low- and middle-income countries do not have access to needed support services, according to he World Health Organization.

A new WHO report  warns that climate change is having long term impacts on mental health and general well-being. Countries must now include mental health support in their responses to climate change, the WHO urges. Mental health is defined by WHO as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes their potential and can cope with the stresses of life, work productively and contribute to their community.

“There is growing evidence of the various mechanisms by which climate change is affecting mental health… The systemic, global and potentially irreversible effects of the crisis have given rise to emerging concepts such as climate change anxiety, solastalgia, ecoanxiety and ecological grief,” the WHO report says.

Climate change impacts are increasingly part of daily life but there is little dedicated mental health support for people and communities dealing with climate-related hazards and long-term risk, says Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.

“The mental health impacts of climate change are unequally distributed, with certain groups disproportionately affected depending on factors such as socioeconomic status, gender and age,” Neira said, noting that it is clear that climate change affects many of the social determinants that already are leading to massive mental health burdens.

The WHO report, launched at the Stockholm+50 conference in Sweden in June 2022, warns that climate change is compounding a challenging situation for mental health and mental health services globally.

Governments need to integrate climate considerations with therapeutic programs to address the mental health impacts of climate change, the WHO recommends. In addition, governments must integrate mental health support with climate action and develop community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities and close the large funding gap that exists for mental health and psychosocial support.

Compounding the problem

The 2021 WHO health and climate change global survey of 95 countries found that only nine nations have included mental health and psychosocial support in their national health and climate change plans.  About two-thirds of surveyed countries had conducted a climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation assessment or were currently undertaking one.

The global health body noted that mental disorders are the leading cause of disability and that people with severe mental health conditions die 20 years earlier than the general population. Mental disorders cost $1 trillion annually and only 2 percent of government health budgets across the world are spent on mental health, the WHO said.

“The impact of climate change is compounding the already extremely challenging situation for mental health and mental health services globally,” said Dévora Kestel, WHO Director, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Social and economic inequalities, public health emergencies, war and the climate crisis are among the global, structural threats to mental health, WHO observed. It recommended the provision of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in dealing with the emergency.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in a report published in February 2022, also revealed that rapidly increasing climate change is a rising threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being.

“Climate change has adversely affected physical health of people globally (very high confidence) and mental health of people in the assessed regions (very high confidence),” the top scientists said in the 6th Assessment Report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

“In assessed regions, some mental health challenges are associated with increasing temperatures (high confidence), trauma from weather and climate extreme events (very high confidence), and loss of livelihoods and culture (high confidence),” the IPCC warned.

Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO climate lead and an IPCC lead author, notes that WHO member states have prioritized mental health in any effort to protect their citizens from the impact of climate change. But only a few have implemented national health and climate change plans owing to lack of funding.

Image: Tired Man, a metal sculpture by Zimbabwean artist David Ndlovu. Photo: Busani Bafana