Climate change can affect us mentally
Published on: Sunday, May 01, 2022
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STUDYING the link between climate change and mental health is a relatively small but growing pursuit among researchers worldwide.

According to one of the latest reports by Climate Cares, a collaboration between the Institute of Global Health Innovation and the Grantham Institute based at Imperial College London, researchers have successfully identified causal pathways clearly linking the impacts of climate change and mental health.

Key findings from this research have established clear evidence of severe distress following extreme weather events, and that climate change exacerbates mental distress, particularly in young people and even those who are not directly affected (eco-anxiety). Climate change also threatens to disrupt the provision of care for people with mental illness.

In developing our country’s Climate Change Policy or Act, it would be wise to also consider the mental health effects of climate change, and explicitly acknowledge this at national discussions. It would entail further advancement of scholarship and practice to make this engagement happen in a meaningful manner, taking into account our own local context.

The following are a few suggestions on how this can be done.

Firstly, at the local level, we would need to establish strong interdisciplinary research teams (bringing together both climatologists and healthcare practitioners) to explore the mental health consequences of extreme weather events and the slow onset of the effects of climate change (prolonged floods or droughts and their impact on our food systems and water security, which would ultimately affect people’s livelihoods).

As the intensity of extreme weather events continue to escalate, examining and responding to post-traumatic stress and other psychological stresses should remain a key priority.

Emerging concepts such as “ecological grief” and “eco-anxiety” (terms coined by experts in more developed countries to describe long-standing mental health responses) should not be ignored, as researchers have warned that this could very well be the “second pandemic wave”.

We need to recognise the different psychological manifestations of climate change and incorporate these in the full-cost accounting of climate-related societal and health impacts. These are described in the Climate Cares Report as “hidden costs”.

Secondly, in terms of response, there is an urgent need to ­strengthen mental health services with a focus on developing systems that are climate resilient. As it stands, mental health services are yet to be emphasised enough in Malaysia’s universal health coverage agenda.

On average, only 3pc to 5pc of the total health budget is spent on mental health, and there is a shortage of mental health workers (a ratio of 2 to 3 per 100,000 population).

To address this gap, we have to think again about how we can strengthen support mechanisms from families, local communities and non-specialised first responders who are adequately trained health workers.

Digitalisation also has a lot of potential in providing access to mental healthcare via telepsychiatry or even the digital health services that were ramped up during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it must be kept in mind that this would not work for geographically isolated or climate-vulnerable ­populations that do not have access to the Internet.

Finally, it’s important to avoid taking a “silo approach”. This is largely because mental health outcomes are concurrently influenced by complex, often multiple and interrelated factors. Mental resilience to climate change should therefore be explored at all levels – individual, community and society.

In advancing this agenda, we have to make a conscious effort to consider the needs of vulnerable groups, including the displaced and marginalised, indigenous communities, the elderly, those with disabilities, children, women and the urban poor.

Dr Renard Siew

Climate Reality Leader


- The views expressed here are the views of the writer Dr Renard Siew and do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Express.

- If you have something to share, write to us at: [email protected]


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