The Kenya Forum | Climate Change impact on mental health - The Kenya Forum

May 29, 2024

Summary

By integrating mental health support into climate resilience and adaptation strategies, Africa can foster healthier, more resilient communities.

More by Winnie Kabintie

Climate Change impact on mental health

Climate Change impact on mental health

Wiki for Human Rights Campaign in Kenya 2024 #RightToaHealthyEnvironment

Wiki for Human Rights Campaign in Kenya 2024

Does Climate Change pose an impact on mental health? posed  Simon Odhiambo from  Code Sanaa Arts group, to delegates  attending  the just concluded annual Wiki for Human Rights Workshop in Kenya, whose theme this year was; Knowledge for a Sustainable Future:Awareness to action.

Kelvin’s question received a resounding yes and nods in agreement across the room and it was quite eye-opening to listen to various insights on the impact of climate change on mental health and well-being.

This year’s  Wiki for Human Rights workshop in Kenya, which is convened by the Wikimedia Kenya UserGroup, an affiliate of the Wikimedia Foundation, sought to bring together grassroot organizations in the country tackling matters environment and climate change for a knowledge exchange session.

Climate change is widely recognized for its physical impacts—extreme weather, rising sea levels, and changing ecosystems. However, an often-overlooked consequence is its effect on mental health and well-being.

In Africa, a continent already vulnerable to various environmental and socio-economic stresses, the psychological toll of climate change is becoming increasingly evident.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which individuals realize their potential, cope with normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community. Climate change disrupts this equilibrium, leading to a range of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The impacts are profound and far-reaching, affecting individuals, families, and communities.

Disasters and Psychological Trauma

Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and cyclones are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change. These disasters cause immediate physical destruction, but their psychological impacts can be just as devastating. For example, Cyclone Idai, which struck Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in 2019, left not only a trail of physical destruction but also a legacy of trauma for the survivors. Many people lost their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones, leading to widespread grief, anxiety, and PTSD.

The same trauma affected victims of the Mai Mahiu landslide in Kenya, were families not only lost their loved ones but their homes and livelihoods.

Both my wife and myself are retired! i have lost everything including her and some of our children! where do you even start!” a distraught Kamau, former high school teacher spoke of the Mai Mahiu tragedy.

In drought-prone regions like north-eastern Kenya and parts of Ethiopia and Malawi, prolonged periods without rain result in crop failures and livestock deaths, exacerbating food insecurity and poverty. The stress and uncertainty associated with these conditions contribute to mental health problems.

Farmers facing consecutive poor harvests experience anxiety over their future and the well-being of their families, which can lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts.

Climate Anxiety and Ecological Grief

Terms such as Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety have now become a reality! these are conditions characterized by chronic fear of environmental doom. Young people, in particular, are experiencing high levels of climate anxiety as they grapple with the uncertainty of their future in a warming world.

Ecological grief, the mourning of environmental loss, is another significant but less recognized issue. Indigenous communities and those closely connected to their natural environment feel this grief acutely. For example, the pastoralist communities in Kenya and Tanzania such as the Maasai, whose identities and cultures are intertwined with their land and livestock, are witnessing unprecedented changes.

The loss of livestock,  grazing lands and water sources due to climate change leads to profound emotional and spiritual distress,” said Doddy Okello from Organisation of Africa Youth (OAY).

victim of Mai Mahiu dam tragedy in Kenya

Displacement and Mental Health

Climate-induced displacement is a growing reality in Africa. Rising sea levels, desertification, and extreme weather events force communities to leave their homes, leading to displacement and migration. The loss of home, community, and way of life is a traumatic experience that significantly affects mental health.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees often face harsh living conditions, inadequate access to healthcare, and social marginalization. The uncertainty and instability associated with displacement contribute to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. For instance, communities displaced by flooding in Nigeria and South Sudan struggle with these mental health challenges alongside physical deprivation.

Community Resilience and Mental Health Support

As the continent faces increasing environmental challenges, recognizing and addressing the psychological toll of climate change is imperative. Social cohesion, cultural practices, and traditional support systems play a crucial role in mitigating these impacts.

However, there is a pressing need for formal mental health support and interventions tailored to the unique challenges posed by climate change.

Integrating mental health services into disaster response and climate adaptation strategies is essential. Community-based programs that focus on building resilience and providing psychological first aid can help individuals cope with the immediate aftermath of climate-related disasters. Training local health workers in mental health care and creating safe spaces for community support are also vital steps.

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