While the consequences of climate change on health have been researched over the years and widely accepted, its impact on mental health is not yet well-established or studied adequately but the situation is changing. (By Arrangement)
After long summer days, when a spell of rain soothes the dusty earth, who doesn’t feel a sense of joy? Even the peacock breaks into a dance. But when the once-refreshing rain continues incessantly for days, causing floods, landslides and devastation, it triggers stress, anxiety, depression and fear. The changing faces of weather impacts human minds.
Climate is a common topic of conversation — as a casual mention of the weather of the day or a detailed discussion on seasonal changes. Dialogues on climate change, global warming and natural calamities due to the vagaries of weather have taken centre-stage in recent times after scientists and environmentalists worldwide have indicated that a gradual rise in the Earth’s temperature can spell doom for the planet. According to NASA, the Earth’s surface continues to be significantly warm, with recent global temperatures being the hottest in the past 2,000-plus years. Global climate change impacts the environment, economy, social life, and health of people everywhere.
While the consequences of climate change on health have been researched over the years and widely accepted, its impact on mental health is not yet well-established or studied adequately — but the situation is changing.
Impact of climate on human minds
Dr C Naveen Kumar.
Dr C Naveen Kumar, professor and head, Community Psychiatry unit and consultant, Centre for Disaster Management, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), says, "There is increasing evidence that extreme weather events that are more frequent, intense and complex owing to a changing climate can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD), anxiety, depression, complicated grief, survivor guilt, vicarious trauma, recovery fatigue, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation." "Incremental climate changes, such as rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and episodic drought, can change natural landscapes, disrupt food and water resources, change agricultural conditions, change land use and habitation, weaken infrastructure and give rise to financial and relationship stress, increase risks of violence and aggression and displacement of entire communities," he notes. "Long-term droughts affect food and water supplies and can subsequently affect the economic and mental well-being of land-based workers. They have also been increasingly linked to conflict and forced migration, which can influence psychosocial outcomes like the propensity for stress, PTSD, anxiety, and trauma," the professor adds.
Dr G Suresh Kumar.
Dr G Suresh Kumar, professor of psychiatry at the Government Hospital for Mental Care (GHMC), Visakhapatnam, says, "Even though we do not have conclusive studies and scientific data about the impact of global warming and climate change on human psyche, extremes of weather conditions do seem to affect the human mind and social behavior. It is seen that climatic conditions often determine the food habits, belief systems, culture and lifestyle of inhabitants of a particular region. Whenever natural calamities like floods, drought, cyclones and earthquakes occur, people suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD and so on."
He explains that "Chronic ailments can aggravate seasonally. Also, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of bipolar mood disorder, is prevalent and extremes of winter affect the mood of such patients, who swerve between mania and depression. Very cold and cloudy weather for prolonged periods can make sensitive people depressive, melancholic, even suicidal. Extremely hot weather on the other hand, can make vulnerable people aggressive, violent, angry, intolerant, irritable, lethargic and stressed out."
"When climate change is inevitable, it is important to build resilience, which is the capacity of an individual to adapt to challenging circumstances while maintaining mental well-being. Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that anyone can learn and develop. It can be achieved at both individual and community level", says Deepika Saini, project officer in the department of Psychiatry at NIMHANS, who suggests ways to cope with mental health in the backdrop of climate change.