17 August,2021 05:21 PM IST | Mumbai | Maitrai Agarwal
A man drags his scooter through a waterlogged Kurla-Ghatkopar road. File pic/Sameer Markande
"Unless there are immediate and large-scale greenhouse gas emission reductions, the average global temperature is likely to reach or cross the 1.5- degree Celsius warming threshold within 20 years," states the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the report as a "code red for humanity" in a statement and said, "This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet."
This report isn*t solitary. Countless reputable global organisations have been warning us about the devastating impact of climate change for years now. The pandemic has taken centre stage in the media for the past year and a half, and natural disasters around the world - from Australia to the United States of America - have shaken our collective consciousness in the same period.
Along the western coast of India, areas including parts of Maharashtra - battered by heavy rains that have claimed more than 300 lives since June 1 - are expected to receive more rain in coming years than the already high levels experienced earlier. "This is because as the climate becomes warmer, the air ends up holding more water, and when these water-laden winds come and hit the Western Ghats, they end up with a heavier rainfall spell," Krishna Achuta Rao, who is one of the contributing authors in the IPCC report, told Mid-day.
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According to the World Health Organization, climate change is responsible for at least 150,000 deaths every year, and it estimates that number will double by 2030. While scientific research has made it clear that climate change is a matter of public health and impacts us all, conversation around the impact of climate change on mental health has not quite gained traction. Mid-day.com spoke to Mumbaikars, including eco-conscious individuals, volunteers, professionals in the environment space, and mental health practitioners, to get a sense of how climate change and reading about it is impacting mental health.
Dual impact on mental health
"Climate change as a global environmental threat creates psychological distress and anxiety about the future. It has a direct impact on mental health (e.g., heat stress) and indirectly affects social support systems, cultural traditions, and environmental conditions," explains consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr. Ruhi Satija.
"There is strong evidence that noise pollution (from traffic) is linked to mental health problems, and may lead to heightened irritability, poor sleep, cognitive impairment, and exacerbation of psychiatric problems," she adds. The direct burden on mental health is also experienced through psychiatric disorders such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that is affected by change in seasons. "SAD can worsen due to extreme changes in weather caused by climate change," Satija further observes.
Moods of Mumbai monsoon
A man uses a plastic sheet as cover against the heavy downpour in Bhandup. Pic/Sameer Markande
"Eco anxiety has existed for a long time. It*s intergenerational," reveals behavioural health researcher and trauma therapist Ruchita Chandrashekar. "People might mislabel it as tension or stress, but many are perpetually anxious during the monsoon. In a resilient city like Mumbai, people go into survival mode channelising their negative feelings by trying to find factors of control." As such, their annual planning and preparation - safeguarding of documents and cash, for instance - is a coping mechanism or a trauma induced response, she says.
"Will the water enter my house one day?," worries Ghatkopar East resident Balakrishnan Menon. A practicing advocate with the High Court of Bombay, he helps city-based NGO Muse Foundation with environmental and human rights issues. "As a ground floor resident since before the 26th July 2005 floods, this concern has turned into a full-blown anxiety. With the ever increasing rainfall over the last few years, it only seems like a matter of âwhen* rather than âif*," shares Menon.
Climate change has contributed to the increased intensity of rainfall, according to research. A study conducted in 2017 concluded that extreme rain events tripled between 1950 and 2015 in Central India while a 2019 study found that "the frequency of single and multi-day extreme precipitation and flood events are projected to increase substantially in the future over the Indian sub-continental river basins."
Constant reportage and alarmist headlines
The ghosts of climate change are many. In addition to the direct consequences, people also feel burdened from being constantly exposed to worrying news about climate change. The frequency of devastation caused by natural disasters around the world isn*t a far-fetched possibility, it has become our everyday reality.
Weighing in on the impact of the 24/7 news cycle Chandrashekar says, "Alarmist reports and eye-grabbing headlines have a long lasting impact. They contribute to the anxiety and confusion instead of informing citizens. People start wondering âAm I doing a disservice to the planet?* They internalise guilt, shame, and helplessness in the absence of accountability which leads to feelings of increased hopelessness and existential dread. What is equally important to note is the intersection of individuals doing their best, without being able to impact the looming deadlines and the consequent negative feelings."
Another study conducted in 2021 found that "Gradual changes in climatic conditions, such as rising temperatures and reduced air quality, are harmful to mental health. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that a significant proportion of people might be experiencing a harmful level of anxiety associated with their perception of climate change."
Saisha Gupta, 17, a student of Dhirubhai Ambani International School says, "From classroom to Instagram, climate change has become a dominant topic in our lives. Living in Mumbai, we are aware that this issue directly impacts us and lingers constantly in our minds. With the pandemic and other important issues, it*s mentally taxing because it feels as if all the focus is on our generation. Alarmist headlines do end up motivating people to act promptly but constant reminders build stress. Just yesterday I heard Mumbai is going to sink. It*s unpredictable and scary that it*s we who have to make change happen."
"My fear is that people will become numb because of the hopelessness that surrounds climate change headlines," shares climate campaigner Arpita Bhagat. The 33-year-old communication expert has been working in the climate space for nine years. She lists making climate change a tea-time conversation as her goal in life as she believes the speed at which her goal is achieved will decide the fate of the planet.
"The conflict is that I have to stay angry enough to have the energy to continue this work and hopeful enough to be able to communicate positivity and hope to the people. I have to walk this tightrope," elaborates Bhagat.
The spectrum of fear and action
Rupali Vaidya, urban planner and mother of two young kids says, "Kids are aware, now that conference level conversations are happening in schools. I couldn*t have imagined a 7-year old (her youngest) knowing sustainable development goals 5 years back, now it is a part of their curriculum."
As the head of projects at Project Mumbai, Vaidya has observed that climate change is impacting the mental health of different age groups distinctly. "Younger kids have a fear of losing something, wondering why some animals are going extinct or forests vanishing, whereas adolescents often spring into action trying to do something for the environment," explains Vaidya.
Graphic designer at the Muse Foundation, Chaitanya Kulkarni shares, "I*ve become hyperaware of the things that are impacting the environment and also about my actions which are impacting the environment directly or indirectly. I know that I can*t change the world, but at least I can make people aware about what is happening, and maybe that might do something."
Children participating in plastic collection drives by Project Mumbai. Pic/Project Mumbai
Outlining the importance of conversation around climate change, Vaidya adds, "Climate change awareness is building a positive sense of ownership towards the environment. Parents can set an example by practicing eco-conscious behaviour and explaining natural disasters and alarming news which will in turn build resilience."
Dr. Satija agrees, "Information can be overwhelming, it is important that parents lead by example and have a solution-focused thought process. Parents should help their children focus more on what can be done, rather than the narrative of problems." As per United Nations Children*s Fund Convention on the Rights of a Child, "Children*s participation in issues that affect them is part of their fundamental rights."
"At Project Mumbai, we have been championing the resilience of youth. If we can*t envision solutions then there won*t be any. We can guide them, but the young minds will be the ones to bring change," concludes Vaidya.
Here are few expert tips on coping with eco-anxiety:
>Talk about your concerns
The first step is to express your concerns instead of avoiding them. Acknowledge your emotional turmoil when coping with negative feelings. Dialogue helps you to connect with like-minded individuals which in turn will help you see that you*re not alone.
>Check your sources
News can be overwhelming, especially if it lacks context and accountability. In the age of doomscrolling, we must be conscious about the channels through which we consume information. While it is necessary to be well-informed, it is advisable to steer clear of sensationalist reportage that prioritises grabbing eyeballs over informing citizens. Rely on reputable organisations.
>Try to focus on what can be done
Having a solution-minded approach goes a long way. Instead of feeling helpless about the deadly bigger picture, tackling smaller problems will ease your discomfort. You can stay in bed worrying about our impending doom, or spend a few hours collecting trash at the beach.
Volunteers helping clean up a beach in Mumbai. Pic/AFP
>Take action as a family
Since the burden of climate change falls disproportionately on the younger generation, parents must find ways to involve children. Starting with conversations explaining the science behind climate change, they can inculcate habits like recycling and promote advocacy for sustainability. Enabling them with proper tools and language will help them process information in a healthy way.
Feelings of guilt and regret stemming from personal consumption patterns and behaviours that fall short of being climate-friendly are becoming increasingly commonplace. The important thing to remember is to have compassion for yourself and others. Forgive yourself for past actions, arm yourself with information, and commit to make better choices in the future.
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