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Are climate change pressures driving more mental illness in Africa?

Thursday, 19 October 2017 14:35 GMT

An internally displaced man from a drought-hit area wheels his cart past a dead donkey near a makeshift settlement in Dollow, Somalia April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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Losses, displacement and worsening poverty from extreme weather may be bringing a growing disease burden, experts say

It’s long been clear that climate change is altering patterns of disease outbreaks in Africa, as worsening heatwaves take a toll and changing rainfall and temperatures drive malaria-carrying mosquitoes into new areas.

But global warming may also be playing a key role in driving other kinds of illness in Africa – including mental health concerns.

Loss of livelihoods and displacement after drought, floods or storms often can cause deepening poverty and desperation, leading to an increase in stress, high blood pressure, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide, doctors and activists say.

Recent data indicates a 20 percent hike in deaths in Africa from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) over the last decade, from about 2.5 million 10 years ago to 3 million in 2015, according to Dr. Abdikamal Alisalad, who manages work on non-communicable diseases at the World Health Organisation’s Africa office.

“NCDs were previously common among the wealthier populations in rich countries, but they have been on the rise across sub-Saharan Africa, where people are relatively poor. You cannot rule out climate as a contributor,” he said.

While there has been little research on a possible link between such diseases and climate change in Africa, Alisalad said that what he’d seen suggested that mental-health disorders and substance abuse could be directly linked to economic hardships related to extreme weather.

“Climate change has led to disasters, conflicts, flooding, droughts and economic hardships across Africa. People as a result get depressed and take up substance abuse to alleviate depression,” he said. “Post-traumatic stress is also becoming common as people sink deeper into poverty.”

Depression may even lead to suicide when people are faced with poverty and hopelessness if their livestock die, they lose all their crops or they become indebted, he said.

Alisalad said violence and injuries – some of them related to climate change – also have been on the rise across Africa, and have been a particularly serious problem in the Horn of Africa, where conflict regularly breaks out over scarce water and pasture.

Joseph Kibachio, head of the Kenyan health ministry’s NCD division, said that the incidence of mental illness is growing across the country, including in the country’s northern region. There “mental disorders (are) the most notable (NCD) in terms of percentage of increase,” he said.

The problem is hardly limited to Africa. Studies in the United States, Australia and India similarly have found a link between climate-related displacement and job losses and rising problems such as stress, depression and suicide.

 “Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide may result from displacement, loss of family members, disabling injuries, lost livelihood (e.g. long-term drying in rural regions) and impoverishment as indirect consequences of climate change”, the authors of a 2012 paper from South Africa noted.

According to Sam Ogallah, programmes officer at the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, studies in Africa directly linking climate change to a higher incidence of non-communicable diseases don’t yet exist – but it’s clear problems such as stress and depression are made worse by the poverty climate-related losses can bring.

He warned, however, that drawing a clear line between climate impacts and mental health issues could be difficult, as other factors often also come into play.

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