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Climate change: Hidden impact on mental health and SDGs

A team of Kenya Red Cross Society volunteers assisting floods victims. PHOTO/Red Cross.


Joyce Nyokabi had always been an early riser. The morning of April 28th was no exception.

In Kamuchiri village, Mai Mahiu, Naivasha, Nakuru County, Kenya, she woke up with a sense of purpose. After preparing breakfast for her children, she ventured out to tend to her crops in the family farm, the vibrant morning sun promising a fruitful day ahead.

Little did she know that by nightfall, her world would be turned upside down. As the evening approached, Joyce returned home to prepare dinner for her family.

The routine was comforting, a familiar rhythm in the chaos of life. But as they retired to bed, a sense of foreboding lingered in the air. Nature had something else in store for them.

In the dead of night, they were jolted awake by the sound of rushing water. Panic gripped their hearts as knee-high floods inundated their home. With adrenaline-fueled urgency, they scrambled to safety, only to be met by the shrill cries of their neighbours.

The dam upstream had breached its banks, unleashing a torrent of destruction upon their community. Homes were submerged, dreams shattered and lives lost.


In the dawn’s light, the true extent of the tragedy unfolded. Jerusalem and Kamuchiri villages were reeling from the aftermath of the deluge, with reports of missing persons flooding in. The numbers were staggering—more than 48 lives lost, families torn apart, futures uncertain.

But amidst the devastation, there was a silent epidemic brewing—a crisis that extended beyond the physical realm into the depths of the human psyche. As the waters receded, the scars of trauma remained, etched into the collective consciousness of the survivors.

Studies have revealed the hidden toll of climate change on mental health. The destruction wrought by floods, droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, landslides, and cyclones left an indelible mark on the human psyche. From anxiety and helplessness to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychological fallout is profound.

Today, majority of the victims of the recent disasters in the country are yet to receive any counselling amid revelations that Kenya is facing an acute  shortage of mental health specialists that include counseling psychologists and psychiatrists.

According to, Mr Alfred Weku, a practicing psychologist in Kenya, climate change is an escalating global crisis with profound implications not only for our environment but also for human health, including mental health.

“The link between climate change and mental health is multifaceted, involving both direct and indirect effects,” he says.

Mr Weku says natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires which are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change cause immediate psychological trauma, leading to conditions such as acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

INFGRAPHIC/American Psychological Association (APA)

“The anxiety and fear related to the future of the planet can lead to eco-anxiety, a chronic fear of environmental doom,” he notes.

Mr Weku says addressing the mental health impacts of climate change requires comprehensive strategies that integrate mental health support into climate action plans emphasizing that the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should integrate mental health considerations into climate policies and emergency response plans.

“This holistic approach ensures that mental health is not neglected in the face of climate challenges. The second strategy is raising awareness about the mental health impacts of climate change and educating the public on coping strategies that can reduce stigma and encourage individuals to seek help,” he adds.

Mr Weku adds promoting community programs that promote social cohesion and resilience can help individuals cope with the stress of climate-related events by creating support networks and providing mental health resources.

Extreme weather events like record-breaking temperatures, storms, floods, drought, wildfires, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, ocean acidification and desertification are not only causing mental health complications but also driving forced migration hunger and other health complications.

Christie Manning, an environmental psychologist at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn and a coauthor of the “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate” report published by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and EcoAmerica says beyond the physical maladies brought on or exacerbated by climate change, there’s the potential for a host of mental health issues.

When it comes to evaluating how our mental functioning is affected by climate change, Manning and other mental health experts have tended to find consistent patterns.

“It’s pretty standard these days to think about the mental health impacts in three broad categories,” Manning said as reported by EoS.

Acute and chronic health impacts of climate change. GRAPHIC/American Psychological Association (APA). INFOGRAPHIC/UN

Climate change is one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals popularly known as 2030 Agenda, whose aim is to eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty which is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 13 together with other goals and 169 targets demonstrate the scale and ambition of the universal Agenda.

Goal number 13 on climate change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change. The goal calls for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Scientists and policymakers have set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Today, the planet is only 0.4°C from that mark.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023 provides a powerful call to action, as it not only highlights the existing gaps and urges the world to redouble its efforts, but also emphasizes the immense potential for success through strong political will and the utilization of available technologies, resources and knowledge.

According to the report, the impacts of the climate change like floods, droughts, landslides and mudslides, cyclones and wildfire among others, the war in Ukraine, a weak global economy, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed weaknesses and hindered progress towards the implementation of the Goals.

The report further warns that while lack of progress is universal, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who are experiencing the worst effects of these unprecedented global challenges. It also points out areas that need urgent action to rescue the SDGs and deliver meaningful progress for people and the planet by 2030.

The SDGs or the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development development is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, has called on the world’s governments, news media and tech companies to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies in light of the industry’s continued greenwashing of its role in perpetuating the climate change.

“The truth is … almost 10 years since the Paris Agreement was adopted, the target of limiting long-term global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is hanging by a thread. The truth is … the world is spewing emissions so fast that by 2030, a far higher temperature rise would be all but guaranteed,” Guterres noted.

Women walk through the flooded Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. PHOTO/UNHCR/Mohamed Maalim

The Paris Agreements central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Another study by, American Psychological Association (APS), says  when people learn about and experience local climate impacts, their understanding of the effects of climate change increases.

Dr Arthur C. Evans Jr, APA’s chief executive officer, say the health, economic, political and environmental implications of climate change are affecting everybody and the tolls on our mental health are far reaching.

“As climate change is created largely by human behavior, psychologists are continuing to study ways in which we can encourage people to make behavioral changes — both large and small — so that collectively we can help our planet,” Dr Evans Jr adds.

A study by The Commonwealth Fund notes that the physical health impacts of climate change are everywhere as extreme temperatures lead to heat stroke and death, floods cause displacements and spread waterborne disease, and air pollution from wildfires leads to respiratory and cardiovascular illness.

The research says evidence is emerging that climate change can also affect our mental health, putting further pressure on a behavioral health services sector already in crisis.

Proposed climate change solutions. GRAPHIC/American Psychological Association (APA).

It adds that living through an extreme weather event such as a hurricane, wildfire, flood, or drought can be traumatizing observing that 67 percent of individuals with direct exposure to the California Camp Fire of 2018 said they experienced trauma similar to PTSD, compared with 14 percent of those indirectly exposed.

“These effects can last for years, as reported by those who lived through Hurricane Katrina,” the study notes.

Another study, Ecological Grief as a Mental Health Response to Climate Change-related loss notes that climate change is increasingly understood to impact mental health through multiple pathways of risk, including intense feelings of grief as people suffer climate-related losses to valued species, ecosystems and landscapes.

The report observes that despite growing research interest, ecologically driven grief, or ‘ecological grief’, remains an underdeveloped area of inquiry and the scientists argue that  grief is a natural and legitimate response to ecological loss, and one that may become more common as climate impacts worsen.

Another research, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, says the impacts of climate change on people’s physical, mental, and community health arise directly and indirectly adding some human health effects stem directly from natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, like floods, storms, wildfires, and heatwaves.

It says other effects surface more gradually from changing temperatures and rising sea levels that cause forced migration. Weakened infrastructure and less secure food systems are examples of indirect climate impacts on society’s physical and mental health.

The study outlines how climate solutions and lifestyle choices  can curtail the mental health impacts incurred when economies, physical and social infrastructures, and social identities are eroded by climate change.

A doctor at work. GRAPHIC/American Psychological Association (APA).

The Commonwealth Fund research also reveals that climate change is also having an impact on the mental health of people who haven’t personally experienced climate-related disasters as more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) have reported having at least some anxiety about climate change.

The study observes that as climate change continues to drive more extreme temperatures and worsening air pollution, the impact on mental health will likely continue to grow.

“Rising ambient temperatures have already been found to increase rates of mental health–related emergency department visits. Violent incidents and suicide attempts also climb as temperatures rise. Similarly, long-term exposure to air pollution has been associated with elevated anxiety levels and even an increase in suicides,” it emphasises.

It also reveals that climate change also can raise stress and anxiety levels for people robbed of their economic livelihoods — as when farmers can no longer grow their crops because shifting weather patterns have led to frequent drought or flooding.

How to support victims of disasters. GRAPHIC/American Psychological Association (APA).

“Extreme weather events can also destroy businesses, severely hamper economic activity, and lead to both short- and long-term financial challenges.” the report concludes.

The study proposes a number of solutions on reducing the impact climate change is having on peoples mental health and this includes improving mental health services and working to tackle climate change.

The solutions includes; support for those at risk, investment in treatment models and support, support for action to address climate change, provider awareness and education and conduct further research and evaluation.

It has to be noted that even those untouched by disaster feel he weight of climate anxiety bearing down upon them. As temperatures soar and air quality plummet, a pervasive sense of unease grip the populace.

The looming specter of environmental catastrophe cast a pall over the collective psyche, exacerbating an already strained mental health system.

As the world grapples with the realities of climate change, resilience has emerged as a guiding principle—a beacon of light in the darkness. For  Nyokabi and countless others like her, the road ahead is fraught with challenges.

But as they rebuilt their lives from the rubble of disaster, they have found strength in solidarity, hope in resilience, and courage in the face of uncertainty.

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