What is the impact of climate change on mental health in South Africa?

by | Oct 8, 2021

“If there’s anything the pandemic has shown us, it’s that never once has the climate crisis been treated as an emergency… We have been reminded of how vulnerable we are, and how quickly things can turn upside down”.

Addressing the crowd at the Global Climate Strike in Berlin last month, activist Greta Thunberg was as empathetic, angry and fiery as ever. Like many children of her generation, and indeed many adults, the issue of climate change is not just about waiting around for the big event. The spectre of environmental degradation weighs heavy, creating anxiety, frustration and a great deal of hopelessness and the earth’s resources and future continue to swing in jeopardy. A new report, commissioned by the Centre for Environmental rights, and compiled by clinical psychologist Dr Garrett Barnwell looks at just this. What is the impact of climate change on our mental health?

The report is a timely one. With increased pressure on the environment mounting daily (CO2 emissions are at their highest in over 3+ million years), and a fractured and often confusing national and international response, there’s no doubt that the looming crisis has impacts on the way we feel about the world and ourselves. Barnwell identifies this by clarifying that the impacts are slow burning, and they’re starting now. Anxiety and worries about the future of the planet manifest in myriad ways, particularly in South Africa where marginalised communities, the impoverished and vulnerable groups like children bear the brunt of the crisis.

“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 explains.

 It’s no surprise that the South African populace may feel nervous about whose driving the bus when it comes to protecting us from the impacts of climate change

Institutional betrayal, mistrust in the government and what Barnwell called “institutional uncare” exacerbate these effects. With government plans to procure more coal to power our electricity, while current infrastructure continues to be wasteful and unreliable, it’s no surprise that the South African populace may feel nervous about whose driving the bus when it comes to protecting us from the impacts of climate change. Persistent issues of service delivery around adequate and safe housing, access to clean water and adequate sanitation are indicators of the inability of everyday people to access protection from their leaders.

“Climate change has the potential of deepening the wounds of historical injustices, and the literature suggests that it will have profound mental health, wellbeing and societal consequences,” says Barnwell.

That said, as Mbali Baduza from Section 27 noted in her presentation during the report’s webinar, Health Minster Joe Phaahla’s commitment to beefing up mental health care provisions in the public sector may indicate that the government is aware of the toll being taken on South Africans.

Ultimately, as Thunberg illuminates, climate change has to be treated as an emergency in order to protect against further environmental damage, but to protect against its impact on everyday mental health challenges. While some South Africans can allay their 4am armageddon-like anxieties through therapy, access to knowledge and resources and through their power to be heard in influential spaces, this is not the case for most. The report punctuates the multi-dimensional approach needed to minimise the negative impacts of the planet crisis on people – both inside and out.


Feature image: Unsplash

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