1 in every 4 Kenyans may be suffering from a mental health-related issue, ranging from mild to severe disorders. [iStockphoto]

Africa makes relatively low contributions to pollution but is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Climate change is not merely an environmental crisis; it poses a significant and often overlooked threat to the global population’s mental health and emotional well-being.

The impact of extreme weather events and climate stresses on the global population has severe repercussions on mental health, leading to increased rates of suicide, exacerbated mental illnesses, and a decline in overall mental well-being.

Mental illness affects around a billion people globally, while the impacts of climate change continue to escalate. According to the WHO Report, Kenya is ranked 5th among African countries with the highest number of mental cases. Mental health experts have estimated that 1 in every 4 Kenyans may be suffering from a mental health-related issue, ranging from mild to severe disorders.

In June 2020, the government declared a mental health emergency after a recommendation by a task force. In Kenya, extreme weather events linked to climate change, such as droughts and floods, have intensified in frequency and severity. These events have threatened food and water security and contributed to severe psychological trauma to the population. Individuals experiencing the impacts of extreme weather events, such as flooding, face a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and extreme distress.

Additionally, the societal and economic disruptions induced by climate change, including forced migration and economic instability, have been linked to mental health issues. Forced displacement after climate-related disasters, such as flooding, is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Climate change is unequivocally a health crisis affecting nearly half of the world’s population. The compounding effects of climate change on mental health are particularly alarming for vulnerable populations, exacerbating existing social inequalities.

The true costs of climate change on mental health remain largely unquantified in policy and practice, despite the evidence suggesting a significant and multi-faceted impact. According to WHO, Kenya is among the few states that have not allocated a separate budget for mental health. This translates to lack of adequate facilities. In 2017, the Office of the Auditor-General’s audit report on mental health indicated that 22 out of 47 counties in Kenya do not have psychiatric units. The Auditor General has not yet issued an updated report on this matter. Hence, proactive measures are needed to build resilience in individuals, communities, and health systems that are most vulnerable to climate-related threats to effectively minimise the mental health burden.

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Addressing the mental health impacts of climate change requires a comprehensive approach. Climate financing for healthcare in Africa should be a priority for policymakers. The national government must allocate resources from climate financing to bolster mental healthcare infrastructure. Investment in psychological resilience is crucial for affected communities to respond effectively to climate threats. Kenyan leaders must recognize the urgency of addressing the mental health impacts of climate change and allocate climate financing for healthcare.

In the lead-up to COP28, Kenyan and African leaders can mobilise the equitable distribution of climate financing to mental health systems. Kenyan leaders can take the mantle to lead African and world leaders in recognising the interconnectedness of climate change and mental health, and allocating adequate resources to address this urgent crisis. By implementing sustainable and resilient policies, Africa can take a leading role in creating a more resilient, equitable, and mentally healthy future for its people.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court and a certified governance, risk and compliance specialist.