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The mental cost of climate change

Too often, the mental health challenges that climate change causes are overlooked in the battle to deal with its destructive and very real physical effects.

By Vukani Mzobe

Growing uncertainty about changes in weather patterns, along with the increase worldwide in extreme weather events and the environmental degradation this brings, can erode one’s mental well-being, causing a range of psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eco-anxiety and climate grief have profound implications for our mental health, but it is people in developing countries, low-income households and vulnerable communities who are affected most acutely. Hence, they are less able to deal with the consequences of climate-induced calamities than their more secure peers.

One example of this is the devastating flood that destroyed the Libyan city of Derna on 10 September 2023. Heavy rains caused by Storm Daniel broke the walls of two dams, sending raging water through the city and killing more than 11 000 people. Libya has suffered political and economic turmoil for years. As a result, plans to reinforce the walls of the dams above the coastal city have been plagued by delays – hampering citizens’ efforts and ability to rebuild after the flood.

Libya is an extreme example of the havoc that climate change can wreak on a population. The increase in both the number and the destructive power of these events has resulted in many people suffering from eco-anxiety – defined as chronic fear and distress related to the state of the environment and the future of the planet. This anxiety stems from an acute awareness of the ecological crisis we are experiencing and the perceived lack of action to address it. Feelings associated with this condition include grief, sadness, vulnerability and mourning. This sense of loss is bound to affect us all sooner or later.

The relationship between mental health and climate change is complex and multifaceted. We need to acknowledge the psychological toll that climate change can take on people. We need to understand the challenges faced by populations who have been displaced by extreme weather events, be they storms, hurricanes, fires, drought or floods. We need to address environmental injustices and try to ease the emotional burden being experienced by individuals. By being proactive, we can take substantial steps towards building resilience and improving mental health outcomes.

So, it is up to us all to show our support for people adversely affected by the climate crisis. Let us make a strong call to incorporate mental health considerations into climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Doing so will go some way in ensuring that the well-being of individuals and communities remains a priority in the face of this global crisis.