Climate Injustice - MHI




Climate Injustice: 

Why Crisis-Affected Sri Lanka Needs
a Climate Change Perspective on
Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

Kusala Wettasinghe


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

Sri Lanka is currently experiencing a profound economic (and political) crisis. Massive sovereign debt, rapid inflation, depletion of foreign exchange reserves, and consequent shortages of fuel have impacted all aspects of life – from the availability and affordability of food to basic services like health and education. An overwhelmingly peaceful uprising in response to the mismanagement of the economic crisis succeeded in unseating the incumbent President in July 2022, but at the time of writing, his successor has declared a state of emergency and launched a crackdown on protesters. 

There are serious concerns about human security and meaningful stability required to ensure the food, livelihoods, and safety of citizens, given the depth of Sri Lanka’s economic problems and anticipated shortfalls in domestic food production. The field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) in Sri Lanka is mobilising to respond to this overwhelming crisis, drawing on past experiences of work during conflicts, disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the Sri Lankan discourse on MHPSS over the past decades has been progressive in many ways, one perspective that it has not yet adequately engaged with is that of climate change as a key factor impacting the well-being of people.  Below, I hope to illustrate how climate change is already impacting vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka, and it is vital that the MHPSS field recognises and addresses this.

Responding to chaos: mental health and psychosocial support 

The MHPSS sector in Sri Lanka has evolved with the humanitarian crises that have affected the country. Since the 1980s, Sri Lanka has witnessed ethnic pogroms in July 1983 and during the escalation of a separatist war that lasted for three decades; the Marxist youth insurrection and brutal state repression in the late 1980s; the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004; post-war recovery and continued challenges; Easter Sunday bomb attacks in 2019; and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

A brief overview of the trajectory of MHPSS responses in the country clearly illustrates the adaptation of approaches and strategies in the face of diverse crises. MHPSS responses were challenged with different facets of MHPSS needs and different parameters within which support for such needs could be provided.  

The predominantly bio-medical approach of psychiatric and counselling services of the early 1980s gradually broadened to consider ‘psychosocial’ issues that caused suffering. Strengthening community resilience through collective initiatives to enhance people’s capacity to cope; innovative interventions to link formal mental health services with local healing practices which had wide social acceptance among communities; a greater focus on networking, capacity-building, and advocacy for the integration of psychosocial considerations into diverse service mechanisms; and helping build strategic connections across vertical and horizontal service provision systems characterise a few of the key strategies that shaped the broad-based psychosocial approach. 

Over the years, the MHPSS sector in the country has evolved to acknowledge and engage with social, material, economic, and political determinants of well-being.  However, one dimension that is rarely given explicit consideration is that of climate change. Exploring the role of climate change as a factor in people’s well-being is especially important in Sri Lanka as it is highly vulnerable to climate change as an island and a tropical country. 
The National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change in Sri Lanka (NAP, 2016) notes the following key climate change risks faced by the country – increase in the atmospheric temperature; changed patterns of rainfall and longer spells of dry weather; increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as drought and floods; and a rise in sea level. 

The distress of climate injustice

Even today, the effects of climate change impact the mental health and psychosocial well-being of Sri Lankan people in significant ways. There are direct impacts of climate change on livelihoods that are dependent on climatic conditions. There are also threats to the lives and resources of families living in fragile environments that are vulnerable to frequent extreme weather conditions. These stressors undermine the socio-economic and material determinants of well-being and mental health in multiple ways. The uncertainty of impacts of extreme weather conditions, the anticipated rise of sea level in the future, and changes to the familiar natural environment are also a source of worry and fear for vulnerable populations’ existence and identity. 

Perhaps the most obvious of the direct impacts of increasingly unpredictable weather conditions is on the livelihoods of farming and fishing communities. Over 28 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is estimated to be directly engaged in agriculture and a significant percentage of the population is indirectly dependent on livelihoods related to diverse food supply chains. The impacts of economic stress on affected families and communities manifest in increased suicidal or self-harming behaviour, family conflict, and risky coping responses that undermine well-being.  Any negative impacts on the production in the agricultural sector, especially food crops and fisheries, also impact the food security of the wider population of the country. In the context of the current crisis, the impacts of adverse weather associated with climate change add an additional layer of precariousness – where Sri Lanka anticipates a loss of food production due to a poorly-planned policy to shift suddenly to organic farming as well as reduced financial capacity to import staples such as rice to meet the shortfall. Furthermore, the sudden onset of extreme weather conditions, especially cyclones, floods, and landslides, routinely disrupt human settlements, damage infrastructure, and impede access to essential services. In the more recent past, an increase in sea erosion damaging houses and property of coastal populations has been observed. Living in such conditions causes instability and uncertainty in people’s lives, and could increase stresses related to the safety and security of their loved ones. Being exposed frequently to inhospitable climatic conditions can erode families’ and communities’ resilience to cope with crises.  Adverse impacts of climate change stressors also affect interpersonal relationships – for example, exacerbate violence against women and children within families. Existing practices of community-sharing can also be challenged when resources become scarce during times of prolonged or repeated harsh weather conditions, leading to inter and intra-community conflicts.

Changing climatic conditions, particularly unfamiliar and unpredictable weather patterns, challenge communities’ use of traditional knowledge, and time-tested skills and technologies in managing their food security. Rural communities adapt to spells of adverse weather by supplementing their staple diet of rice with alternative seasonal foods during lean periods. Prolonged drought or frequent floods undermine people’s capacity to use their knowledge and skills to cope with threats to their farming and food security. Similar stresses affect the fishing communities whose fishing seasons are premised on predictable weather patterns and the movement of shoals.  

The case for integration of climate change adaptation and MHPSS 

The loss of the ability to use their knowledge and skills to manage their natural environments to sustain lives and livelihoods can challenge men’s and women’s fulfillment of their caregiving and economic roles within their families, and their social roles as productive members of their communities. This may affect their sense of self-efficacy, self-worth, and dignity, and result in a loss of perceived control over their lives and livelihoods. These would directly impact their mental health and psychosocial well-being. Cianconi et al. have highlighted how experiencing loss of control and powerlessness over one’s environment and resource bases in the context of climate change causes uncertainty and stress that affect people’s mental well-being. 

The global discourse on climate change and mental health, viewing these through a clinical lens, has offered diagnostic labels such as ‘solastalgia’ or ‘eco-anxiety’ to describe conditions related to grief or anxiety over the loss of familiar environments caused by climate change. Regardless of the frameworks we use to articulate these conditions, it is vital to understand that people’s difficulties and distress resulting from climate change are shaped by the particular psychosocial meaning of the impacts on them.  In Sri Lanka, the experiences of climate change impacts and consequences on mental health and psychosocial well-being may vary significantly across communities, within them, and even between members of the same family.  

…impacts of climate change weigh heavier on people who already experience structural discriminations and social injustices in their daily living…

When supporting individuals and groups in communities, including families living in extreme poverty, socially marginalised groups, and people with disability, it is vital to recognise their particular intersectional vulnerabilities to climate change. As with other crises, adverse impacts of climate change weigh heavier on people who already experience structural discriminations and social injustices in their daily living, or who have historical experiences of adversity. In Sri Lanka, this means that the impacts of climate change are compounded by the impacts of war experience, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing economic crisis. More visible crises may also sometimes overshadow the slower and less dramatic dimensions of climate change impacts, making it hard for service providers and policy-makers to recognise the role of the latter. The MHPSS field in Sri Lanka would better serve many of the vulnerable communities and groups that it seeks to assist if it were more sensitive to climate change as an increasingly important determinant of people’s well-being. A climate change perspective will be relevant to every level of MHPSS response – from caring for individuals with acute impacts, targeting support to specific groups, responding to collective experiences of affected communities, to addressing underlying environmental and material factors. MHPSS responses informed by a climate change perspective may need to take on new approaches and emphases – for example, engaging more deeply with communities’ relationships to place and environment, or emphasising more on processes that build collective resilience to hazards and adverse changes, that are shared experiences.

…impacts of climate change weigh heavier on people who already experience structural discriminations and social injustices in their daily living…

Cite this Article View all References


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