By Annonciata Byukusenge
African governments need to urgently invest in mental health infrastructure so that they can tackle the rising but hidden cases of climate-related stress among farmers and livestock keepers.
Speakers at a meeting organized by the African Coalition of Communities Responsive to Climate Change (ACCRCC) and the Kenya Red Cross Society noted that more than ever measures to help communities adapt to the negative health impacts related to climate change are needed.
On this Wednesday 10 May, 2023, Dr. Rosalid Nkirote, executive director, of the ACCRCC said losses and damage due to climate change impacts such as floods and droughts are causing rising cases of depression. “We are seeing farmers and pastoralists fall into serious depression as a result of losing investments in farming activities and livestock keeping due to drought and floods,” she said.
According to the World Health Organisation, around 10% of the population in Africa has a mental illness, which is similar to the global average. Yet, notes WHO, there is only one mental health worker per 100,000 people in Africa, compared to a global average of nine per 100,000 people.
In addition, on average, most people in rural Africa take at least 1-hour walk to a health facility or longer depending on the nature of the road network.
The Kenya Medical Research Institute notes that the longer distances to a facility, particularly with no road network and limited vehicular transport may limit access to life-saving interventions.
While lauding such efforts as developing drought-resistant crops, and implementing early warning systems for disasters, Zachary Misiani, from the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) said mental health infrastructure is badly needed, particularly in such areas as rural and pastoral that have historically been neglected.
Misiani said climate change is a significant and emerging threat to public health and may get worse as the planet warms, oceans expand and the sea levels rise, floods and droughts become more frequent and intense. “This calls for changes in the way societies look at protecting vulnerable populations such as those with chronic illnesses or living in disaster-prone areas,” he said.
He added that among the must-have in governments is climate information for early warning as a way of reducing the effects of extreme weather events.
“Early warning systems provide advance notice of impending disasters, allowing individuals and communities to take necessary measures to reduce risks and prepare for the event, take protective measures, thereby saving lives and reducing damages to property and infrastructure,” he said.
According to Reagan Elvis Nyango, a mental health expert from Uganda, there is an emerging trend where climate change is undermining gains in development. But while the response to climate impacts tends to focus on damaged roads and buildings, there is little attention given to the mental status of people whose livelihoods have been lost, people who lose loved ones nor those whose houses have been damaged,” said Nyango.
The relationship between climate change and health is complex, to some extent not so direct. In recent years climate change has become a social, economic, environmental, and political challenge facing humankind both at local, regional, and global levels.
“Climate change may be one of the indirect factors that are contributing to the prevalence of mental disorders. The background vulnerabilities that create the conditions for increasing the risk of mental illness can be directly or indirectly influenced by climate change,” said Dr. Nkirote.
Scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change (IPCC) warn that climate change could affect livelihoods, the management of resources, health, and productivity of people, leading to food insecurity, rising conflicts, increasing poverty, creating an internal displacement of populations, and increasing in refugee crises as people flee areas of extreme climate events such as floods and droughts.