Mental Health Another Casualty of Changing Climate
By Jed Alegado and Angeli Guadalupe
Jed Alegado is an incoming graduate student at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands. Angeli Guadalupe is a medical doctor currently studying under the University of Tokyo's Graduate Program on Sustainability Science-Global Leadership Initiative. The two are Climate Trackers from the Adopt a Negotiator Project.
MANILA, Sep 8 2015 (IPS) - Jun* is in chains, tied to a post in the small house that resembles a fragile nipa hut. His brother did this to prevent him from hurting their neighbours or other strangers he meets when he’s in a ballistic mood. Jun has been like this for three years now, but since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines two years ago, his symptoms have worsened.
After the disaster, Jun lost his own house, his wife and his children. This psychological distress he went through triggered a relapse of his psychiatric illness. With no one else able to take care of him, Jun was taken by his brother to their family’s house.
But since his brother is working and the other people in the house are their old, sickly and frail parents, no one can control Jun during his manic episodes. He has not been able to maintain his medications because his family can’t afford them and the free supply at the local health center doesn’t come consistently. For these reasons, the best option left for Jun’s brother is to put him in chains.
Impacts on mental health
A few more cases like Jun exist in Tacloban City and most likely, in other areas of the Philippines as well – both urban and rural. Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Typhoon Haiyan) struck the country on Nov. 8, 2013. It was a Category 5 super-typhoon with wind speeds ranging from 250 to 315 kph, killing at least 6,300 people and costing PhP 89 billion in damages.
Due to extreme loss and survivor guilt, at least one in 10 people here suffers from depression. But two years after the disaster, some survivors remain unaware of available mental health services. Others complain of the poor quality of services and scant supply of medications. Many survivors who are more affluent choose to consult psychiatrists in other cities to avoid the stigma.
As with most disasters, physical rehabilitation is prioritised. This is understandable and perfectly rational, but the mental health of the victims should not be forgotten.
According to the World Health Organization’s report on the Global Burden of Disease, mental disorders follow cardiovascular diseases as the top cause of morbidity and mortality in terms of disability-adjusted life years or the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.
Yet despite the staggering number of people affected, only an estimated 25 percent of them worldwide have access to mental health services. More than 40 percent of countries have no mental health policy and mental health comprises less than 1 percent of most countries’ total health expenditures.
Nowadays, climate change brings us more frequent and devastating natural disasters. In emergencies such as natural disasters, rates of mental disorders often double. Hence, attention to mental health should be doubled as well, especially in countries highly vulnerable to disasters such as the Philippines.
Being an archipelago and still a developing country, this is not surprising. According to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security’s World Risk Index Report 2014, out of the 15 countries with the highest disaster risk worldwide, eight are island states, including the Philippines.
Ensuring health impacts in the negotiation text
Health advocates are quick to respond to this alarming issue. Groups led by the International Federation of Medical Students (IFMS) are ensuring that the issue of health and its impacts to climate change are included in the climate negotiating text.
Beginning from the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) in Lima, Peru last year which continued in Geneva last February, the group has been advocating for health to be back at the center of negotiations and in effect ensuring that parties will forge a strong climate agreement in Paris on December.
Last week’s Bonn climate negotiations – one of the few remaining negotiation days before the actual COP in December – proved to be an exercise in futility as negotiators keep dodging on the issue of a loss and damage mechanism, which, according to health advocates, is crucial for helping people affected by the health-related impacts of climate change.
According to IFMS, “there is a growing involvement of member states to include health in the negotiating text. As a group, we want to ensure that health is included in all parts of the negotiating document – preamble, research, capacity building, adaptation and finance.”
Indeed, the impacts of climate change go beyond environment, food security, land rights and even indigenous peoples’ rights. More importantly, climate change has both direct and indirect effects on health. Climate change’s health impacts are inequitably distributed with the most vulnerable sectors like the elderly, children and pregnant women having the least capacity to adapt.
Parties to the UNFCCC must see this alarming issue towards forging a fair and binding climate deal in December which will limit keep global warming below 2 degrees C and ensure adaptation mechanisms to the most vulnerable nations.
In the future, it is foreseen that wars will be fought over water not oil. Disasters nowadays may give us a glimpse of the worst to come when the staggering impacts climate change worsen and affect us in ways beyond what we can handle.
Yet, with the rapid turn of extreme weather events, what we are doing is not just for future generations. It is for us, who are living now on this planet. We are going to be the victims if we do not take responsibility as much as we can, as soon as we can.
*Name has been changed to protect his identity.
Edited by Kitty Stapp