HomeOpinion & AnalysisExploring climate impacts and mental health in displaced communities

Exploring climate impacts and mental health in displaced communities


Peter Makwanya
EVER since the emergence of climate-induced disasters in developing countries, attention has been centred on the nature of climate toll, human casualties and infrastructural destruction. Much has not been reported and researched on the mental state of those affected by the climate-induced natural disasters.  Although issues of human health and mental conditions are the communities of practice for health professionals, health briefs, health communication and journal research repositories, which are accessed by only a few, always leave important stakeholders behind. The majority of the public have been closed out of the pandemic, which is slowly but negatively impacting on their states of mind.

Among many issues which threaten mental health, the relevance and role of climate change has been under reported, let alone sufficiently researched. It appears as if it is a taboo to talk about how climate change impacts human health. A close analysis of the displaced communities, due to climate-driven natural disasters like cyclones, destructive floods and extreme weather events reveal that people are not always free to talk about mental health issues. Without taking anything  away from African communities and their contributions to global knowledge, anything that has to do with mental instabilities and disorientation, is viewed through witchcraft lenses, myths and superstition.

Due to these unsustainable underlying health issues, their placement in the underworld as being supernaturally driven has led to continuous nursing of climate-driven mental health issues, posing a threat to how human beings should build resilience and climate change mitigations. It is high time issues of climate-driven mental health are reconnected and mainstreamed into climate change and development for the sustainable living that we all envisage. The problem is that human communities and research networks have failed to connect how some climate vulnerability issues can be linked to mental health issues.

Institutional counselling, investing in mental rehabilitation, awareness, education and sustainable relocations including moral and material support are key for post disaster traumatic stabilisation. In this regard, the mental health implications of climate change impacts have a history of being neglected, under reported, under research nourishment, support and funding, including policy appeasements and rejuvenation. Even continuous human worry about environmental problems, such as droughts, hunger, famine and floods, may also lead to psychological distress and the unstable nature of human worldview.

While these impact negatively on human health, they also contribute to food shortages, water scarcities, loss of livelihoods, and unregulated migrations, among others.

Countries, whose health delivery systems are obsolete, are fertile grounds for nurturing mental health conditions. What communities also need to know is that while human activities accelerate climate change and impact negatively on the environment, they also impact negatively on mental health.

Besides the climate-related natural disasters, human beings should tone down on their untoward climate and eco-freaky behaviours like their urge for deforestation, unsustainable waste management, discharging of industrial affluence into water bodies, their lust and preoccupation with fossil fuel burning, water-pollution, among others.

There are climate-driven disasters still vivid in the minds of the survivors like Cyclone Idai, floods in Tsholotsho, Binga and other low-lying areas such as Chiredzi in the South East of Zimbabwe. However, the Tugwi-Mukosi floods of 2013-14, which contributed to the massive humanitarian crisis including mental health issues, may not have been directly linked to climate change impacts but human negligence and weak infrastructural development. While it is the duty of every country to build strong institutions and infrastructure, negligence and planning to fail should never be tolerated.

The country’s major dams are heavily silted and polluted, which impact human health through water-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea, among others. COVID-19 pandemic, has also emerged and slowed down climate change mitigations including climate change interventions. There is also a possible link between climate change and COVID-19 as an epidemic, by changing the environmental landscapes and stalling recovery, adaptation and livelihood options.

Communities are affected by climate change impacts through direct exposure to extreme weather conditions, environmental pollution or complex pathways, such as altered food yields and changes in disease transmissions and other vector-influenced diseases, that have the potential to contribute to mental health issues.

In this regard, research, sustainable reporting of mental health issues, education and awareness need to be accelerated and transformed. Key players in the health sector, media and communication, environmental experts and policymakers need to network sustainably on how mental health issues can be mainstreamed in development planning scenarios.

Even the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties held annually does not sustainably foreground issues that have to do with the mental health of their stakeholders.

While authorities talk so much about the impact of climate change on human health, they have not singled out climate change and mental health as issues worth serious interrogation. World-wide, people are suffering silently and seeking treatment for wrong ailments without knowing that it is the impact of mental health on their mind sets, resilience building and livelihood options.

A broad section of stakeholders in different communities cannot cope with the impacts of climate change if they are not in good health, because a health body requires a healthy mind, for them to be able to cope and navigate through the climate-induced sresses, complexities and challenges. Community interventions are affected if participants are not in a good state of mind. Life becomes horrible due to lack of rehabilitation, mental health disorders and disorientation which are not being factored into health planning and climate budgeting.

In order to avoid mental health disorders, climate change adaptation, education, communication and awareness become key and transformative for sustainable mitigations. Undiagnosed climate-related mental health issues will increase the costs of the countries’ productivity and also suffocate the health-service delivery systems of any country including the cost of climate recovery interventions. Issues of moisture stress, lack of precipitation, carbon emission inequalities and lack of inclusion of vulnerabilities impacted communities, strained human imaginations and operations, as forms of climate injustices.

In this regard, climate-driven mental health issues should be prioritised and be at the heart of every country’s health well-being. The aftermath of a disaster requires swift and prompt attention so that dire living conditions and inhabitable scenarios, lack of attention and acknowledgement from authorities will not nurture an eco-cide capable of destroying humanity.

Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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