Based on a speech given by David Nabarro at a ‘Mental Health Advocacy and Action’ workshop with ‘NCD Child’ and ‘The George Institute for Global Health’, on 23rd June 2022, this narrative was written up by Mihika Acharya, Communications Officer at 4SD.
We are currently in the middle of the largest cost-of-living crisis seen in at least a generation exacerbated by conflict, climate change and COVID. In addition, one in 20 of those who get infected by COVID have been left with lingering problems affecting their heart, respiratory system, and their general well-being. Many people have lost their jobs because of COVID. Politicization of responses to this difficult virus has led to the stigmatization of groups of people and a lack of trust in authority. COVID has also caused anxiety to those with chronic non-communicable illnesses not being able to access healthcare.
Society re-opening has led to more visceral fears- not just of catching COVID-19, but also of the fear of passing it on to a loved one, the stress of being faced with new realities of working from home, unemployment, home-schooling of children, or the lack of physical contact with other family members, friends, and colleagues. All these factors along with system disruptions caused by climate change and conflict are drivers of social and health inequalities, having the greatest effect on those most vulnerable.
Without meaningful interventions, an even greater burden will be placed on our health and on our health systems, only further deepening inequalities. How we deal with it now can either strengthen our societies or set us back in the progress that we need, to make our societies equitable and durable. And that means we need a global response that focuses on the needs of those most vulnerable. We need all people to be protected, and we need to prepare all our systems and all our communities to be more resilient.
To assist with the challenge of the conflation of crises including COVID, conflict, cost, and climate change, the United Nations set up the ‘Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance’ to help decision-makers mobilize collective solutions. At the same time to address the mental well-being of individuals and communities, the World Health Organization released a report on Climate Change and Mental Health at the Stockholm + 50 conference. More recently, the ‘Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment’ of Imperial College London, put together a comprehensive document on the impact of climate change on mental health and emotional well-being. The publication shows the relationship between increased temperatures and number of suicides and gives evidence for severe distress following extreme weather events. It goes on to show how climate change amplifies mental distress, particularly among young people, even for individuals who are not directly affected (e.g. ‘eco-anxiety’).
With the help of these initiatives, governments everywhere are urged to include mental health in their response to the climate crisis, to develop community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities and close the large funding gap that exists for mental health and for psychosocial support.
50% of mental health problems are established before children are aged 14, and 75% before adolescents are 18. Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to negative mental health impacts of climate change, and they do need to be equipped with knowledge and skills to be able to steer themselves through this, to be able to lead their communities, their organizations, and to make their voices heard in their spheres of influence.
Advocacy by young people is particularly important in moving the needle for systems leadership. For interconnected crises, interconnected solutions are needed. Systems leaders know how to weave the different issues together. They understand the need for whole system responses while still being able to focus on their components.
Young people can bring awareness and drive behaviour change by engaging with systems from multiple perspectives at the same time. They can appreciate the relationships between systems and their environment. They can feel the pace and rhythm of systems and assess their readiness for change. They are more likely to meet people where they are, rather than where they would like them to be. Young people are ready to make these changes and provide the systems leadership that is needed for the future, but they can only do so if they are able to function at the interface between climate and health.
In summary, climate change combined with food shortage and conflict on top of COVID is having an extreme impact on the mental health and well-being of people everywhere particularly those that are poor or vulnerable. This is manifested in the interconnected problems that we see today, and they need systems solutions and leaders who are systems thinkers and practitioners. The mounting pressures and increasing triggers for mental ill health need collective attention now. Community-based approaches to provide mental health and psychosocial support to all people particularly those who are hard to reach, poor, and those who are vulnerable, needs to be the centre of our attention now.