Naturally, we might expect these disastrous events to have some effect on our mental health, but relatively few studies have comprehensively assessed the links between disasters and mental health. But a new report could fill in important gaps in the data on mental health and climate change.
Published Wednesday in the journal PLOS Climate, the study examines the connection between “community disasters” and depression in South Africa. The findings speak to an urgent need to devote greater attention — and resources — to the physical and mental health of vulnerable communities in the wake of disasters like extreme weather events.
“Our investigation in South Africa provides large-scale empirical evidence on the likelihood of depression among individuals living in a community affected by a disaster,” Andrew Tomita, lead author on the study and senior lecturer at the School of Nursing and Public Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, tells Inverse.
What’s new — Analyzing data on more than 17,000 South Africans, the researchers reached two sobering conclusions on depression and disaster in the nation.
First: exposure to disasters was “significantly associated” with the likelihood of the first onset of depression. In other words: people who were exposed to the disaster had a greater risk of depression than those who did not experience the event.
“It is possible that experiencing multiple disasters ... can negatively impact mental health, or make people more susceptible to the effects of subsequent disasters,” the researchers conclude in the paper.
Second: the people at greatest risk were often vulnerable groups like low-income and black South Africans, as well as women and people with less formal education. On the other hand, researchers did not find a greater association between disasters and depression in populations with higher income or education levels, as well as in men.
The paper suggests that the negative impact of community disasters “may be more pronounced among individuals considered chronically socially vulnerable.”
“Unfortunately, gender inequality and poverty are persistently high in South Africa,” Tomita says, adding that women and Black Africans often have fewer resources to “psychologically cope with the consequence of disasters.”
Why it matters — Natural disasters are on the rise in Africa, which accounted for 23 percent of global natural disasters in 2019.
Although climate change is one of the most significant challenges to sustainable development in the region, “there is not enough attention in sub-Saharan Africa or large-scale evidence that speaks to the mental health impact of community disasters,” according to Tomita.
The researchers write that the “occurrence of disasters and their impacts on society may be underestimated in Africa” so studies like this will be crucial to accurately understand the community impacts of disasters on the continent as climate change accelerates. This new study shines a spotlight on vulnerable racial groups and low-income populations in regions that often get overlooked in climate change discussions.
According to the paper, the “potentially greater number and severity of natural disasters in Africa than elsewhere may further aggravate fragile public healthcare systems and diminish the availability of mental health care.”
The findings could also have ripple effects not just in South Africa — which faces both severe drought and flooding in part due to climate change — but around the globe. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2021 that extreme weather events are on the rise due to global warming, and recent studies suggest climate anxiety is becoming a significant problem, especially in young people.
Therefore, data related to climate change-linked disasters and specific mental health issues — like depression — will be crucial as more and more people around the world experience the effects of global warming.
“Ecological distress, a form of psychological distress related to present or anticipated ecological change, cannot be ignored,” the researchers argue in the study.
How they did it — The researchers gathered data on thousands of individuals from the South African National Income Dynamics Study, which took place between 2008 and 2017. All individuals were depression-free at the outset.
Of the 17,000 individuals in the data, nearly 3,000 were exposed to community disasters during the timeframe of the research. For the purposes of their study, researchers mostly used the term “community disaster” rather than “natural disasters” since it can be difficult to distinguish between natural and manmade events. The disasters covered in the study include drought, flooding, fire-related agricultural loss, tornadoes, mass unrest linked to xenophobia, and rain damage to roads.
The scientists then used statistical models to determine the correlation between exposure to disasters and depression, as well as the links between certain demographics — such as socioeconomic status and gender — and depression onset to reach their sobering conclusion.
What’s next — With this data in hand, researchers hope the government and public sector organizations will be able to help build more climate-resilient communities.
The scientists stress policymakers will need to provide “timely access to community-based supportive intervention” for disaster survivors, as well as greater access to mental health services in primary care settings. Simply providing treatment on an individual basis will not be enough as disasters take a greater toll on communities due to the climate crisis.
“As our investigation pointed out, the detrimental impact of disasters on mental health is long-lasting,” Tomita says.
Future research will likely include the community impacts of long-term heat stress, which will draw further attention to the complex links between mental health and climate change.
“We would like to investigate the impact of long-term trends of heat and heat stress on mental health to raise awareness about the danger of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in vulnerable communities,” Tomita adds.