AS STAKEHOLDERS continue to plan how to deal with climate change, recent findings show that the public also has to be aware of its effect on mental health.
A report by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and EcoAmerica revealed that climate change impacts mental health directly and indirectly. For instance, associated extreme events such as typhoons and heavy rainfall episodes have resulted in more cases of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) among survivors.
Dr. Fely Marilyn Lorenzo of the Commission on Higher Education (Ched) supported this claim in her experiences in dealing with typhoon survivors.
"When there are impending typhoons, we find more heart attacks. Blood pressures go up. There are a lot more anxiety reactions. In the evacuation centers, many have their blood pressures checked," she said.
The devastation brought by these occurrences can contribute to further deterioration of mental health. The damages due to a disaster, such as losing one's home and properties and being separated from family and the community, deprive people of their familiar physical and social environments. This can lead to further trauma and depression, which can take months or years to recover from.
"PTSD may be temporary, but when there are calamities brought by climate change, there are more stresses. They might be temporary, but it breaks up the peace and harmony of one's life," Lorenzo said.
The study also determined that the mental well-being of a person can also be indirectly impacted through more gradual manifestations of climate change. These impacts become more magnified in more vulnerable sectors, such as the youth, elderly, and poor communities.
In urban areas, increased temperatures and poor air quality can influence the type of activities people engage in. Its inhabitants, in turn, tend to avoid engaging in outdoor activities and recreation. This can lead to an increase in stress levels and alter their behavioral patterns, according to the study.
This, it added, is evident in an increased usage of electronic gadgets among the Filipino youth, partly to avoid the risk of dehydration and other extreme heat-related conditions. Such a shift can lead to problems associated with their mentality, including their development, executive function, interactions with others, scholastic achievement, and decision-making.
To solve this issue, Lorenzo emphasized the need for the Philippine government to invest more in improving mental health services in the country.
In particular, she praised the efforts of the Department of Health (DOH) and other civil society groups in providing mental health services to the disaster victims in the immediate aftermath.
"After typhoons, DOH will come up with a small group that will do the counseling for people. Whenever there's a typhoon, they have psychologists and psychiatrists that will look at psyche of the people. They'll look at how well they're able to cope with the stresses of typhoons or calamities that hit them," she added.
Despite these initiatives, focus on mental health continues to be lacking in the national agenda, much less how it is affected by climate change.
Lorenzo cited a lack of consolidated information system regarding cases such as depression and suicide, preventing a fuller analysis of this relationship.
Recognizing that the government must take the lead in establishing this data management system, she emphasized the need for it to get the civil society, the private sector, and people's organizations involved in collecting the necessary information and other activities necessary for relevant policymaking.
"The health professionals have no incentive to help out in terms of analyzing the link between climate change and mental health. Unfortunately, that is what's happening. The government has to take the lead, but it should also provide the incentive for people to do what they need to do," Lorenzo added.
Another issue is the difficulty in determining the connection between climate change and the impacts on a person's mental well-being.
Aside from climate variables, relevant factors such as the living environment, education level, and personal values can also affect one another. The individual effects of each of these causes on the human psyche may also be difficult to distinguish compared to physical health.
"Well, anything in public health is multi-factorial, so there is no one cause that you can really link certain conditions to. We look at the host, the environment; it's an interplay," said Lorenzo.
Ultimately, mitigating both the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on mental health rests in reducing vulnerability of the public. Implementing effective climate adaptation measures can relieve communities from traumatizing experiences brought by typhoons and droughts. In urban areas, improving infrastructures and services such as public transportation and creating more green spaces should help form a harmonious living environment suitable for maintaining a healthy psyche.
This again rests on the capacity of government to carry its mandated duty to protect the well-being of its constituents, in partnership with other sectors. The community and individuals can also take certain steps to minimizing the effects of the changing climate on the human psyche.
For communities, Lorenzo advised its constituents to pay attention to populations of concern and train themselves how to respond in case of disasters. Constant climate-mental health communication and setting up a contingency plan for resources should also reduce vulnerability in their areas. Individuals can engage with mental and public health professionals and support local and national solutions to increase their resiliency to both climate impacts and mental health issues.
"Before your typhoons and tsunamis come, you are already preparing people so whenever it comes, their vulnerabilities are already low. It's the same principle when it comes to health," Lorenzo said. (John Leo C. Algo)