When we talk about extreme climatic change and its impact on humans, we usually think of physical suffering in the midst of cyclonic storms, excessive heat, excessive cold, excessive rain, and rising floodwaters leading to the destruction of homes, leading to internal migration. Pangs of hunger, thirst, common cold, and fever are the most recognisable physical pains endured during such difficult times. But little did we know that the adverse conditions of nature also leave their marks on the minds of vulnerable people – women, adolescents, and children.
The impact of climate change on the minds of the people was so far an unknown territory, but research by public health experts found out how deep the wounds on minds tend to go unless addressed in time. In recent years, more research has helped to collect valuable data, which ultimately made it easy for researchers and policy planners to establish a correlation between climate change and mental suffering.
Mental health experts now say that during extreme heat or cold, during prolonged rain or flood, people suffer higher levels of psychological distress and even develop serious mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse disorders, etc. During such extreme climatic conditions, mental equilibrium gets upset when faced with predicaments like unemployment, homelessness, food, and water insecurity.
Extreme heat has been identified by climate experts as contributing to injurious consequences for mental health. Commonly, people exposed to extreme heat tend to become more stressed and irritable in their interpersonal relationships. Lack of sleep after a hard day's work can worsen mental health problems.
Adverse climate conditions usually affect women and children massively, as they remain more prone to abuse and insecurity than men. Women face hygiene issues during adverse climate conditions, and they might face the obligation to stay with several people in a small shelter house, where some men might try to take advantage of their vulnerability.
It has been observed that poor women face trauma from both within the family and outside, but they do not have anyone to share their anxiety issues with. As these women have no friends, no society, no clubs, no recreation, suffering violence, anxiety, and physical pain makes them psychologically worn out.
We may take a look at the findings of an important study conducted by Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the World Bank in Bangladesh. The study revealed that extreme heat and humidity and other climate-related events have an alarming impact on mental health conditions in terms of depression and anxiety in Bangladesh, the world's seventh most vulnerable country to climate change. The findings from this research appeared in February 2023 in The Lancet Planetary Health.
Here are some key elements from the study. The study's lead author, Syed Shabab Wahid, DrPH, MPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Global Health at Georgetown University's School of Health, said that they have now established a high-water mark that could soon be eclipsed for how climate can impact mental health in a highly vulnerable country. This should serve as a warning for other nations.
He further said that previous global research had found a link between these climate-related phenomena and adverse mental health outcomes in terms of depression and anxiety. As climate change worsens, temperatures and humidity will continue to increase, as will natural disasters, such as extreme flooding, having a worsening impact on our collective mental health globally.
The researchers measured climate-related variables at 43 weather stations in Bangladesh to monitor record changes in seasonal temperatures and humidity over a two-month period. They, however, said this was not long enough to record climate change impacts but enough to record indications of how even small changes in weather can impact mental health outcomes.
The findings show that 'people experiencing 1-degree Celsius higher temperatures during the two months preceding the study had a 21% higher probability of an anxiety disorder and a 24% higher likelihood of both depression and an anxiety disorder simultaneously. Similarly, a 1-gramme increase in moisture per cubic metre of air in humidity was found to create a 6% higher probability of co-occurrence of anxiety and depression.
According to health experts, "exposure to worsening flooding linked to climate change in the region was attributed to increased odds of all conditions: depression by 31%, anxiety by 69%, and the presence of both conditions by 87%. The overall prevalence of depression in the Bangladeshi population was 16.3%, which is considerably higher than global estimates of depression of 4.4% found in other studies.
In addition to the finding of the large disparity in depression levels in Bangladesh compared to global estimates, they found anxiety levels of 6.0 % in Bangladesh compared to estimates of 3.6% globally.
Public health experts suggest a number of recommendations on how mental health distress can be minimised. Physical and mental readiness, they suggest, are key to survival during extreme weather conditions. Trained volunteers should handle people suffering from traumatic experiences during floods or cyclones carefully. Volunteers must ensure that women and young girls are not subjected to harassment in the shelter houses to add to their misery.
Health experts further suggest that, since extreme heat impacts the minds of people living in worse conditions, it is advisable to avoid working under the scorching sun or in a hot environment. In such cases, employers should be taken on board to help lessen the suffering of the workers. Caregivers should try to adopt culturally appropriate measures while addressing mental worries and depression.
Early symptoms of distress, trauma, and depression should be attended to by professionals only. Mental health care facilities must be made available to all, regardless of class, age, and gender. They must know about the importance of proper psychological healthcare to lead a happy family life. Poor women must be told that they can ask for counselling almost at no cost.
Shahnoor Wahid is a senior journalist.
Noushin Mouli Waresi works at Bangladesh Health Watch, Brac James P Grant School of Public Health.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.