The climate change and mental health nexus enters UN Climate Change Conference discussions for the first time

 The climate change and mental health nexus enters UN Climate Change Conference discussions for the first time

A COP28 side event discusses climate risks for mental health and psychosocial well-being, and how to improve opportunities for support and empowerment of affected populations

Lavinia Laiti

In the first COP to include a day-long working session dedicated to the topic of human health, the climate change and mental health nexus could not fail to receive proper attention. Climate change results both in catastrophic extreme events, such as hurricanes, floods and fires, which cause loss of life and material goods, but also in slower threats, such as alteration of natural ecosystems, food and water insecurity and loss of cultural aspects. These also have measurable negative impacts on mental health and psychosocial well-being, exacerbating many risk factors. The United Nations University Institute for Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS) sponsored a side event at COP28 entitled “Climate Change and Mental Health: Understanding Risks and Empowering Opportunities” on December 4, 2023.

Numerous talks provided insights to improve understanding of the interconnections between climate change and mental health and to recognize adaptation risks and opportunities for affected populations from the perspectives of policy, pro-environmental practices, geographic and cultural contexts, and the intersection of gender, age, and socioeconomic status. Special attention was given by speakers to the integration of modern and traditional knowledge and empowerment of affected communities.

Experiences of community initiatives from the Global South

The session, moderated by Dr. Nidhi Nagabhatla (UNU-CRIS), began with some examples of interesting international initiatives that combine contrasting negative mental health effects with community adaptation actions aimed at creating greater resilience and opportunities.

Prominent among them is the “Tiger Widows as Fish Farming Entrepreneurs” project of the Green Hope Foundation (a Canadian nonprofit organization working in 28 countries around the world), implemented in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest on the Bangladesh-India border. Here “tiger widows”, women who have lost their husbands to tiger attacks and are in dire straits, are helped to become entrepreneurs in fish farming by repopulating local ponds with native species. In this way they can once again provide a stable source of livelihood for their families while regenerating local aquatic biodiversity. Tiger attacks are increasingly frequent in the area due to the reduction of their habitat and scarcity of resources driven by the climate crisis, which is causing poorer populations to move into the Sundarbans’ territories, with an alarming increase in human-feline conflicts. The local community is also involved in coastal mangrove restoration operations, a nature-based solution that counteracts climate change in two ways: mangroves have a great capacity to capture and store carbon (up to four times more than in other tropical forests), retaining the muddy coastal soil; and mangroves play an important protective function against damage caused by storm surges and flooding from increasingly frequent storms.

“Grow Your Own Food”, on the other hand, is dedicated to school children in Suriname, South America, who are taught how to farm at home in a sustainable way. This allows children to experience their ability to take action and create change, as well as empower them, increase their connection with nature and, most importantly, help them and their families against food insecurity due to the effects of climate change.

The need for greater integration between mental health and climate policies

The second part of the event focused on integrating mental health support into existing climate policies and health systems, reducing vulnerabilities, implementing community and multisectoral approaches, and developing climate change-informed health programs. 

Marianne Overton, from the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) and a councilor for the county of Lincolnshire (UK), reported how in her experience in Great Britain we are seeing an increasing number of cases, including severe ones, of children and young people, as well as adults, suffering from disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome and eco-anxiety due to climate change, adding that due to dwindling financial resources local authorities are unable to ensure an adequate response. According to Overton, more work needs to be done in the critical phase of prevention, alerting and informing the population and making greater use of the vital role of community networks, which are often the promoters of crucial self-help actions, in synergy with local governments. 

In Canada, where the groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change include indigenous peoples, the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy has recently included risk assessments and specific measures, particularly to manage the impacts of extreme heat on people with mental health problems.

Charlotte Scheerens, of Ghent University, reported on the impacts caused by unpreparedness during the floods that hit Eastern Europe in 2021, claiming 37 lives in Belgium alone. A research questionnaire revealed the severe impact on the mental health of doctors, nurses and firefighters involved in emergency management, as well as the difficulties people had in accessing needed medications and the stress, both mental and financial, that affected those who lost everything and did not insured their property and homes.

The conclusions were entrusted to Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, director of the Climate Change and Health Unit of the World Health Organization (WHO), who cited the WHO’s policy recommendations published in 2022 (“Mental health and Climate Change: Policy Brief”, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240045125), which called for every effort to be made to close the gap between mental health needs and the effective accessibility to health systems for response and support, mainly by integrating specific considerations into health policies and investing more in research and data and evidence collection. Finally, Campbell-Lendrum mentioned how the origin of the well-known youth environmental movement Fridays for Future, created by Greta Thunberg, lies precisely in the search for an effective response to a mental health problem caused by climate change. 

And in Trentino?

Even in Trentino, the problem of the spread of eco-anxiety has not gone unnoticed, especially among younger people. Faced with reports from teachers in schools of all levels and the relevance of this phenomenon, APPA, the Viração&Jangada Association and MUSE together promoted an experimental project, “Circolo Climatico” in 2022. Building on the experience of self-help groups, the participants followed a shared path of education and awareness for managing “climate emotions”, including with the support of climate change experts and a trained psychologist. The project, now in its third edition, primarily targets young adults aged 18-35.

As part of activities to develop the future Provincial Strategy for Mitigation and Adaptation of Climate Change, coordinated by APPA, a shared training has been implemented with the Department of Health and Social Policy and the Provincial Health Services Agency, which has included mental health risks among the priority risks for identifying appropriate adaptation measures.

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