COP26 May Have Caused Despair, But Millions Caught in Climate Crises Face Serious Mental Health Challenges
A protest banner highlighting COP26’s exclusion of indigenous communities from talks.

While China and India’s last-minute refusal to commit to an end to fossil fuel at COP26 has caused depression and despair amongst many developing country delegates and climate activists, the mental health of millions is already severely affected by what climate disasters have done to their lives.

Humidity and heatwaves are linked to increased suicides, according to a new report released on Monday. Almost one-third of people caught in floods experience post-traumatic stress. Predicted massive climate-related conflict and increased climate migration are also triggers for mental distress.

“When we talk about the mental health impact of climate change, many people think I am talking about eco-distress and eco-anxiety but that’s not really what I’m talking about,” said psychiatrist Dr Lisa Page, co-chair of the UK Royal College of Psychiatry’s Planetary Health and Sustainability Committee.

Instead, said Page, she was referring to the direct and indirect impacts of climate crises on mental health.

“A systematic review that was published recently showed that around if you’re flooded, around 30% of people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and probably around 20% of people will develop either depression or anxiety,” Page told a meeting hosted by the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health Workers and Royal College of Physicians on the sidelines of COP26 last week.

Turning to heat, Page pointed to statistics from the UK Office for National Statistics for summer 2020 which showed that all-cause mortality went up during each of the three recorded heatwaves, with over 2500 excess deaths in England alone.

“That’s mostly in the over 65. But we know from other evidence that it’s not just the frail elderly. It is also people with major mental illness, examples being dementia, severe and enduring illnesses like psychosis, and people with substance misuse problem,” said Page.

Monday’s report in Nature, based on data from 60 countries between 1979 and 2016, found statistically significant increases in suicide – but related to more to humidity than heatwaves. Women and younger people were particularly affected, and the countries affected were as varied as Sweden and Guyana.

One of the scientific reasons advanced for this is that some medicines for mental health inhibit the body’s ability to effectively thermoregulate. This results in heat stress and the exacerbation of certain mental health conditions, including bipolar ‘disorders’, schizophrenia, dementia and developmental ‘disorders’ including autism.

Page cited indirect impacts such as loss of land, forced migration, and changes patterns in infectious diseases as possibly more significant than heat and floods.

“Forced migration, particularly migration that might involve unexpected migration, or migration after conflict, has very significant and very serious effects on mental health, and can  lead to higher incidence of psychosis, for example, in migrating populations,” said Page.

“There have been recent dire predictions about increases in conflict as a result of climate change and I can’t think of any other human activity that leads to more mental disorder than conflict,” said Page. “And finally, we get to eco-distress and eco anxiety.”

What about grief and loss?

Child psychiatrist Dr Lynne Jones, has been establishing and running mental health programmes in conflict areas and after natural disasters since 1990, including Iraq, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Uganda, post-tsunami Indonesia, post-Earthquake Haiti and with migrants in Europe and Central America.

“For millions of people, climate change is not a future threat but a current catastrophe,” said Jones, speaking from Bosnia where she is working with migrants. 

“Climate-fuelled disasters were the number one driver of internal displacement in the last decade. The word climate change is totally inadequate. These disasters are the result of climate breakdown and ecological collapse and I prefer the term planetary crisis to encompass both.”

In 2020, Central America suffered the worst Atlantic hurricane season ever recorded, which displaced more than half a million people, while Madagascar has been in a climate-induced famine for the past four years, said Jones.

“The developing brain needs adequate nutrition, maternal love, play and stimulation. And if any of these absent, there’s likely to be lifelong damage and an enormous loss of human potential,” stressed Jones.

Jones worked in a refugee camp in Chad following a climate-induced conflict and was struck by how mothers were too depressed and lacking in energy to interact with their babies.

“I know that PTSD and traumatic stress and acute stress problems are a major issue of the conflict. But what doesn’t get talked about, as a direct effect of conflict and disaster, is grief and loss. It is the most important mental health effect. It’s not a disorder,” said Jones.

“The problem is how do you mourn if you can’t hold a funeral because your house has been destroyed? Or all the neighbours are also mourning and feel they can’t come because they’re dealing with their own grief so you don’t have that community connection? And what if there’s no body because it was lost at sea, or buried in a mass grave, or abandoned in flight? These are the problems of grief and loss that I don’t see discussed?”

Image Credits: Disha Shetty .

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.