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Feelings of anger, despair, betrayal? How climate change is affecting our mental health



Published Sep 20, 2021


OPINION: Affected children are likely to have extra challenges at school as their concentration is impaired and they are emotionally overwhelmed by the impacts of the climate crisis and fears for their futures.

By Avena Jacklin

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THE findings of the report, by community psychology expert Dr Garret Barnwell, are clear: climate change poses a severe threat to the mental health and well-being of present and future generations – and people living in South Africa are vulnerable to these effects.

In the report, Barnwell explains how people experience climate change through a range of traumatic and stressful events, or climate change exposures. These can include natural disasters, water insecurity, food insecurity and air pollution. These exposures lead to well understood psycho-pathologies, including anxiety, depression, suicide, interpersonal violence, decreased work productivity and increased hospitalisation.

Climate change exposures can be experienced directly (e.g, natural disasters) or vicariously through watching others suffer. These events may also be experienced as anticipated harms and they may be accumulative (when a person experiences many traumatic events across their lifetime).

Institutional betrayal of the government

People living in South Africa are vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to poverty and other socio-economic and historical factors. It is extraordinarily difficult for the majority of South Africans to adapt to the advancing climate shocks, such as climate change-exacerbated disasters, water insecurity and economic losses.

“The same social conditions that make individuals and communities more vulnerable to climate change, are the same that put people at higher risk of mental illness and psychological adversities,” Barnwell says.

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In this context, the government’s plan to procure 1500MW of new coal-powered electricity generation will not only exacerbate the immediate and long-term effects of climate change in South Africa through increasing greenhouse gas emissions, but it also has the potential of deepening the wounds of historical injustices and leading to a sense of institutional betrayal.

This institutional betrayal, described by Barnwell as the loss of trust that occurs when institutions mandated to safeguard people fail to do so, directly flies in the face of the government’s Constitutional obligation to ensure people’s right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being.

“The government’s choice to not adequately avert the mental health impacts of climate change contribute to the psychological experience of institutional betrayal and secondary trauma for current and future generations,” Barnwell says.

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Our children’s future children and future generations are vulnerable. In the report Barnwell says numerous studies that have been cited show that greenhouse gas-emitting energy sources have detrimental physical, mental, and neuro-cognitive consequences, and that the climate crisis leads to children experiencing high levels of anxiety and emotional distress.

Affected children are likely to have extra challenges at school as their concentration is impaired and they are emotionally overwhelmed by the impacts of the climate crisis and fears for their futures. Children can turn these feelings inwards and experience profound sadness, loss, helplessness, or hopelessness, or they can turn these feelings outwards in destructive ways.

In the report Barnwell says: “It is not only the negative experiences that children and individuals have, but what these experiences can take away. Hope, happiness, a sense of self-worth and trust in the world can be challenged and dulled.”

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Sense of place threatened

These effects are also not only experienced on the individual level but on the communal one too.

According to the report climate disruptions can be experienced on the level of community as a loss of people’s sense of place. Studies show that climate harms can threaten intergenerational identity processes as land is lost, communities’ social cohesion is fractured as land is not arable, and sacred natural sites are threatened by ecological degradation.

“Profound adverse mental health implications”

Barnwell concludes the report with a warning: “We cannot escape the fact that climate change impacts pose an existential threat to individuals, families and communities that is psychologically – and otherwise – harmful. Climate change has profound adverse mental health implications for those living in South Africa.”

If we want to avoid a future in which we consign young people and future generations to experiencing the devastating effects of climate change on mental health, we must ensure that our government takes concrete steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensures that mental health is addressed in all climate change responses.

The government can do this affordably by decarbonising its electricity sector, starting with abandoning its plans for new fossil fuel electricity capacity – 1 500MW of new coal power and 3 000MW of new gas power, as per the Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity of 2019 and September 2020 Ministerial Determination.

At present South Africa is within the world’s 15 largest greenhouse gas emitters. As such it is a major contributor to the climate impacts that threaten future generation’s well-being and mental health.

The report, titled “The psychological and mental health consequences of climate change in South Africa”, was commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights for the African Climate Alliance, groundWork, the Vukani Environmental Movement in Action in support of the #CancelCoal campaign.

* Jacklin is Climate and energy senior campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the EarthSouth Africa.

(The article is co-authored by Promise Mabilo, a community activist and a Coordinator at Vukani Environmental Movement in Mpumalanga and Sarah Robyn Farrell, a volunteer co-ordinator of Action & Advocacy at Africa Climate Alliance)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.