Rising sea levels, the melting of polar ice, and extreme weather events such as wildfires, floods, and droughts have become common manifestations of climate-induced disasters.
Scientific reports indicate Earth’s atmosphere is experiencing a worrisome increase in carbon dioxide levels, which has triggered a chain reaction.
In the Maasai community, one of the repercussions has been the alarming rise in suicide cases due to prolonged drought and famine, experts revealed during last week’s climate summit. They expressed concern over a surge in suicide cases attributed to climate change-related factors.
Speaking at the sideline event with the theme ‘The Nexus between Mental Health and Climate-Related Disasters’ Dr Susan Gitau, a psychologist, highlighted the profound anxiety and hopelessness gripping individuals within the Maa community, exacerbated by persistent droughts and famine.
“For the resilient Maa community, witnessing a surge in suicide cases is unprecedented, considering their reputation as the bravest warriors who have historically confronted lions,” Dr Gitau emphasised. “Life has never been devoid of stress. It is about how individuals cope with it and support their own communities.”
Dr Gitau underscored the significant role climate-induced disasters have played in triggering depression and confusion among the once-determined Maa community.
Nomadic and pastoralist people rely on seasonal patterns to predict events like rainfall, planting, and harvesting. However, current climate instability has left them disoriented, leading to severe mental health challenges.
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“In Kenya, and across Africa, communities like the Maasai have a profound connection to livestock. Losing their livestock equates to losing their lifeline and everything they hold dear,” added Dr Gitau.
She also lamented the neglect of mental health amid these devastating crises. “We are witnessing a troubling rise in suicide cases within the Maa community. While we provide physical support to those affected by climate disasters, we often overlook their mental well-being,” she said.
Experts warned that the lack of data regarding the intersection of climate change and mental health is hampering response efforts.
These concerns have been backed up by London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation titled, “The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional well-being” published in May 2021 states, that higher temperatures are tied to depressive language and higher suicide rates. Fires, hurricanes, heatwaves, and floods carry the risk of trauma and depression.
Dr Gitau stressed that failing to address mental health during these hard seasons significantly increases the risk of severe mental health issues.
“Many affected communities are grappling with traumatic stress disorders and depression, leading to increased use of substances like alcohol, marijuana, and miraa to cope with post-traumatic stress,” she said.
Dr Stephen Mutuku an Economist and health Investment Expert at NSDCC notes that Africa will never achieve Uniiversal Health Coverage if the continent fails to address issues of climate change that result in mental health.
“If someone loses a relative through drowning, the next thing that happens is loneliness and depression resulting to Ione becoming vulnerable either to the community or to the peers, one ends up being in the hospital every time resulting out of pocket expenditure, the next thing is increased cost of healthcare,” said Mutuku.
Zachary Misiani, a senior Research Scientist from the International Centre for Humanitarian Affairs at the Kenya Red Cross Society, echoed these concerns. He emphasised that vulnerable communities in Africa experience one disaster after another, leaving them with little time for recovery.
Misiani called for actionable information to empower these vulnerable communities to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. He pointed out that climate-related hazards wreak havoc on livestock and agriculture, citing the devastating droughts that affected millions of people in East Africa.