In the past few yearsThe world is facing an onslaught of increasingly apocalyptic extreme weather events that have become more frequent due to the climate crisis.
Of course, we can expect these catastrophic events to have some impact on our mental health, but relatively few studies have extensively explored the links between disasters and mental health. But a new report could fill important gaps in data on mental health and climate change.
Appeared in the magazine on Wednesday PLOS climateThe study investigates the link between community disasters and depression in South Africa. The results speak to the urgent need to devote more attention – and resources – to the physical and mental health of vulnerable communities after disasters such as extreme weather events.
“Our research in South Africa provides extensive empirical evidence on the likelihood of depression among individuals living in a disaster-hit community,” Andrew Tomita, lead author of the study and senior lecturer at the School of Nursing and Public Health at the University of KwaZulu- Natal in South Africa, narrated The opposite.
What’s new – The researchers analyzed data from more than 17,000 South Africans and came to two sobering conclusions about depression and disaster in the nation.
First, exposure to disasters was “significantly associated” with the likelihood of experiencing depression first. In other words, people who were exposed to the disaster had a higher risk of depression than those who did not experience the event.
“It is possible that experiencing multiple disasters … may negatively impact mental health or make people more vulnerable to the effects of subsequent disasters,” the researchers conclude in the paper.
Second, those most at risk were often vulnerable groups such as low-income and black South Africans, as well as women and those with less formal education. On the other hand, the researchers did not find a greater association between disasters and depression among populations with higher income or educational levels, and among men.
The paper suggests that the negative impact of disasters in the community “may be more pronounced in individuals considered to be chronically socially vulnerable.”
“Unfortunately, gender inequality and poverty remain high in South Africa,” Tomita says, adding that women and black Africans often have fewer resources to “psychologically cope with the aftermath of disasters.”
Why it matters – Natural disasters are increasing in Africa, which was responsible for 23 percent of global natural disasters in 2019.
Although climate change is one of the major challenges to sustainable development in the region, “there is not enough attention or large-scale evidence in sub-Saharan Africa that speaks to the psychological impact of disasters in the community,” Tomita said.
The researchers write that “the occurrence of disasters and their impact on society in Africa may be underestimated,” so studies like this one will be crucial to accurately assessing the impact of disasters on the community on the continent as climate change accelerates to understand. This new study sheds light on vulnerable racial and low-income groups in regions often overlooked in discussions about climate change.
According to the paper, “the potentially greater number and severity of natural disasters in Africa than elsewhere may further aggravate fragile public health systems and reduce the availability of mental health care.”
Findings could also have repercussions, not just in South Africa — which is facing severe drought and flooding, partly due to climate change — but around the world. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2021 that extreme weather events are on the rise due to global warming, and recent studies suggest climate anxiety is becoming a significant problem, particularly among young people.
As such, data on disasters related to climate change and specific mental health problems – such as depression – will be crucial as more and more people around the world experience the effects of global warming.
“Ecological stress, a form of psychological stress related to current or anticipated ecological changes, cannot be ignored,” the researchers argue in the study.
How they did it – The researchers collected data from thousands of people from the South African National Income Dynamics Study, conducted between 2008 and 2017. All subjects were free of depression at baseline.
Of the 17,000 people in the data, nearly 3,000 were exposed to community disasters during the study period. For the purposes of their study, the researchers mostly used the term “community disaster” rather than “natural disasters” because it can be difficult to distinguish between natural and man-made events. Disasters covered in the study include drought, floods, agricultural losses to fires, tornadoes, xenophobia-related mass riots and rain damage to roads.
The scientists then used statistical models to determine the correlation between exposure to disasters and depression, as well as associations between certain demographic characteristics — such as socioeconomic status and gender — and depression onset, to arrive at their sobering conclusion.
What’s next – With this data, researchers hope government and public sector organizations can help build more climate-resilient communities.
The researchers stress that policymakers must provide “timely access to community-based supportive intervention” for disaster survivors, as well as better access to primary care mental health services. Providing treatment on an individual basis will not be enough as disasters due to the climate crisis take a greater toll on communities.
“As our research has shown, the adverse mental health effects of disasters are long-lasting,” says Tomita.
Future research is likely to include the impact of long-term heat stress on the community, further drawing attention to the complex links between mental health and climate change.
“We aim to examine the impact of long-term trends in heat and heat stress on mental health to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in vulnerable communities,” adds Tomita.