Climate change and Covid-19 have not only increased incidents of depression, anxiety, and insomnia in young adults between 16 and 24 years, but have also led to the breaking of social bonds. These were the findings of a recent Lancet study.
The first-of-its-kind study — published in the Lancet Regional Health-Southeast Asia — chose samples from the urban slums of Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills and the slums of Faridabad in Haryana.
The study, by the George Institute of Global Health, highlights the immense burden faced by these vulnerable young populations. It sheds light on the urgent need for targeted interventions to address their mental health needs.
What did the study aim to find in urban slum-dwellers?
Conducted in 2021, the study, titled ‘Psychological Responses to the Climate and Covid-19 Crisis in Young People and Their Agency to Build the World They Hope to See’, picked 500 participants from the slums of Harivihar A and B and Chhaju Ram blocks in Faridabad, as well as Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad.
“The slums were purposively selected as part of an ongoing study on ‘Mental Health Risk Factors Among Older Adolescents Living in Urban Slums: An Intervention to Improve Resilience (ANUMATI),” the study quoted.
This study adopted the cross-sectional survey design aimed at capturing the potential synergies between psychological distress arising from the emerging Covid-19 crisis and the existing climate change crisis, and its consequences specifically on the mental health of young people.
Commenting on the need for such a study, lead author Dr Sandhya Yatirajula, in a press statement, said, “While Covid-19 has affected daily life and health on an immediate level, climate change has been silently damaging the planet with adverse impacts that are not immediately apparent.
“The loss of agency and hopelessness that may result from climate change is concerning, particularly for vulnerable populations who are already at risk due to the Covid-19 crisis.”
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The study aimed at understanding perceptions, thoughts, feelings towards climate change and the Covid-19 crisis, as well as concerns and desires for the future — whether they “built back” from the crisis situation — to understand the participants’ contribution to the changes particular in these two areas.
The participants mostly belonged to upper lower class, followed by lower middle, lower and — very few of them — upper middle class, with a majority of the respondents having completed secondary schooling. Also, three-fourths of the respondents were unmarried.
Awareness could lead to emotional distress
The participants were asked about their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic, their exposure to climate change related events, like severe heat waves, heavier storms, more rain or floods leading to loss of livelihood, homes, etc.
The researchers found that the extreme weather events had detrimental effects on the mental health of children and adolescents, and were also a source of trauma and distress. The participants noted that seeing natural environments that they cared about change for the worse led to anxiety.
“The existence of climate crisis was associated with emotional distress. Negative emotional responses such as feelings of guilt, pain, anxiety and demoralisation were associated with the awareness of climate change and its looming threats,” the study noted.
Negative emotional responses, the study says, could lead to psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depressive disorders, stress-related disorders, substance abuse and suicide ideation.
The recovery of those youngsters with already-existing mental illness, in such situations, maybe be affected without social support.
Interestingly, the study also found that such climate change-related distress can lead to anger, which in turn, may lead to behaviours that are pro-environmental such as climate action or activism.
For instance, nearly 62.3 percent of the participants said they felt inspired to live a more eco-friendly life, with improved health and well-being, while about 42 percent of the youngsters seeing others change their behaviour towards climate, felt they should change their actions too.
While there is no study on climate change effects in urban slums pre-pandemic, this study showed that little more than half the participants were less worried about climate change earlier, than they were after Covid-19 hit.
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Urgent need to address mental health impacts
Meanwhile, the study found that irrespective of whether the person was severely infected with the Covid-19 virus or not, it marked an increase of psychological distress in youngsters.
The study noted, “Anguish, uncertainty, fear of death, anxiety, increased alcohol and substance use was widely reported in these slums. So, internet addiction had increased.”
Meanwhile, several methods, including lockdown, quarantine, isolation and so on, to stop the spread of the virus had reduced people’s sense of security and increased the feeling of loneliness. Also, an increase of depression and anxiety were noted.
“Financial problems faced by family” was the significant negative consequences that was listed by the participants of the 13 items given as options to them.
Interestingly, 67.9 percent of respondents said that one of the significant positive impacts of Covid-19 was that they got a little more time to relax.
However, having to stay at home, thinking about how many people are dying due to the virus, loss of jobs, not being able to see friends in person had impacted their lives negatively.
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What can governments do?
The study mentions that the youngsters in urban slums have been impacted by both climate change and Covid-19. However, the study shows that young people’s activism on climate change and the Covid-19 crisis has also had some positive impact.
Explaining this observation further, lead scientist Dr Pallab Maulik said, “While individuals may feel a sense of responsibility for addressing these societal issues, they do not take decisive action. This suggests that broader societal factors may be at play, such as systemic barriers or a lack of collective action, that are preventing individuals from fully realising their sense of agency.”
The authors of the study noted that more youngsters, especially from these places, should be provided more opportunities and platforms to participate in taking actions.
“To prevent negative impacts of pandemics and climate change, policymakers and citizens must collaborate to create a country that is both resilient and proactive,” the authors said.
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Psychologists, psychiatrists seek focus on mental health
Doctors South First spoke to agreed with the study and said that there are several people from different states who have experienced loss of property, loved ones, jobs, experienced displacement, anxiety, guilt, etc.
“Access to mental health care also has been a challenge. There are some NGOs who are still working towards identifying and creating awareness amongst people in urban slums. Rural areas are no different, governments must intervene, provide access to mental health care,” explained Dr Mahesh Gowda, psychiatrist from Bengaluru.
Doctors stressed on the need to include mental health of youngsters during such crisis situations. Be it a pandemic, heat wave, flood, drought, etc, Dr Mahesh said that climate-related changes are going to definitely happen and governments need to be prepared with action plans, including mental health care for these young boys and girls, he added.