Climate variability

Climate variability affects the mental health of the rural poor

New research linking climate variability to mental distress among poor rural India addresses hotly debated topic

Working outdoors in summer leads to heat stress (Photo by Nevil Javeri)

Climate variability affects the psychological well-being of adults, especially the rural poor, reports new research from India, reigniting debate over the complex interplay of factors that could trigger mental distress in those affected by a change climate.

The research, published in the journal Global development, concludes that the hot weather of the previous year worsens the psychological well-being of Indian adults; thermal shocks during the agricultural season increase depressive symptoms; and the negative effects are found among rural residents, but not urban ones.

The report points out that climate variability has been shown to have detrimental effects on disease and death, but “less is known about its effects on psychological well-being, particularly in developing countries whose economies are weak. based on agriculture ”. Poor mental health has been linked to low productivity and high healthcare spending and is a “serious concern” in India and many developing countries, according to the report.

The researchers, led by Magda Tsaneva of Clark University, USA, tested whether extreme temperatures and rainfall in India impacted self-reported depression symptoms, cognitive and sleep difficulties, and the ability to face and control life. The researchers analyzed weather changes over time and at different locations; and found that the hot weather of the previous year worsened psychological well-being among rural adults in India.

Too hot to handle it

The researchers also looked at the potential mechanisms that led to the mental distress and found that it “is largely due to warm temperatures during the growing season and could be partly attributed to reduced agricultural production.” According to them, there is “suggestive evidence” that the effects of climate shocks could be mitigated through poverty reduction programs such as India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Program which guarantees employment for all households. rural people for 100 days a year.

The report points out that the negative impacts of climate change on agriculture-based rural economies like India are likely to increase over time.

Given that nearly half of the world’s population lives in rural areas and is vulnerable to climate variability, it is essential to understand the effects of climate on psychological well-being and to identify potential solutions to secure populations. vulnerable and break the cycle of poverty, the report adds.

Tsaneva says her team used mental health data from 2003 and 2007, so they were only able to look at the short-term effects of climate for that time period. “That’s why we prefer to use climate variability and not climate change,” she told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “While it is possible that we will get similar effects in the long term, we don’t want to speculate on this because the effects can be lessened if people adapt. As an example, she says new varieties of heat-tolerant crops developed could be a mitigating factor.

Contested research

The latest research builds on a previous one – and hotly contested in India – to study by Tamma Carleton of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). He reported that “warming trends in temperatures over the past three decades have already been responsible for more than 59,000 suicides across India”, and these accounted for 6.8% of the trend. the total rise in suicides in the country. See: Scientists Criticize Study Linking Farmer Suicides To Climate Change

The Carleton study, however, used aggregate state-level data to examine the effect of temperatures on suicides, while the new research “is the first formal study linking climate variability and mental health to using data at the individual level, ”explains Tsaneva.

Vikram Patel, professor of global health at Pershing Square and senior researcher at the Wellcome Trust, Harvard Medical School, told indiaclimatedialogue.net that “what is well established is that social determinants such as uncertainty in the means of livelihood and displacement, both of which are likely to be greatly exaggerated by climate change, are major contributors to stress which, in turn, is a trigger for mental health issues and self-harm.

But Patel believes that much of the cause of farmer suicides in India has to do with the uncertainties inherent in the profession, which have been compounded by the globalization of food markets and easy access to deadly methods of suicide. “This is why farmers are a high risk group in all countries and have been for decades,” he says. “Climate change will obviously make their livelihoods even more precarious and therefore ultimately affect their mental health.”

Patel also points out that the urban poor are equally vulnerable, especially since “the number of the urban poor will increase as people are displaced from rural areas due to loss of livelihoods, especially due to change. climate affecting agricultural prospects ”.

Saudamini Das of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, challenged the PNAS findings in a letter to the newspaper. Das says, “While there is certainly a loss in yield due to extreme weather conditions, the magnitude of the loss is not huge enough to trigger suicidal tendencies. “

Das January 2018 Letter to PNAS also said: “Studies estimating the impact of climate variables on Indian agriculture show that high temperatures reduce yield by less than 5%, and such loss is not likely to justify suicidal tendencies. “

“Crop losses are identified as a cause of farmer suicides in India, but they are almost total crop losses,” she said. In fact, agricultural insurance schemes in India “do not even include high temperatures / heat waves as an agricultural risk, because heat crop losses are relatively less,” his letter says.

Das had also questioned the definition of hot days used by Western studies. For example, she says, a threshold of 20 degrees Celsius (or 15 to 25 degrees Celsius) used by Carleton to define warmer days “doesn’t make sense” in the context of a tropical country like India. , where a heatwave day is declared if the temperature goes above 40-42 degrees. So in an Indian context, a temperature around 20 degrees Celsius is pleasant weather and unlikely to induce an extreme decision like suicide.

Lost working time

Das, who had conducted an investigation into the economic burden of heat waves – the frequency of which is expected to increase with warming – on the poor in Odisha towns from 2013 to 2014, also disagrees. that mental health problems triggered by climate variability are confined to rural areas. . Reporting the survey results in Climate Economics in 2015, Das showed that poor urban workers suffer loss of working time during extreme heat episodes, which in turn leads to loss of income.

The survey showed that workers work 1.19 hours less and spend 0.46 hours less at home, and that they rest on average 1.65 hours more on a heatwave day than on a summer day. was normal. Stress from loss of income can impact their mental health, she says.

Tsnaeva says poor mental health has been associated with low labor market participation and high health care use, “and can place a substantial burden on households creating cycles of poverty.”

“In view of the increasingly irregular weather conditions caused by climate change, it is essential to understand the effects of climate on psychological well-being and to identify potential solutions to provide for vulnerable populations,” he said. she reported to indiaclimatedialogue.net.


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