Building Solidarities: Climate Justice and Mental Health - MHI



Building Solidarities:

Climate Justice
and Mental Health 

Raj Mariwala and Saniya Rizwan


Studio Ping Pong


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.

Among the many urgent issues of contemporary times, climate change and mental health have garnered much attention over the last few years. Both have been given space in international diplomacy summits, national legislatures, and academic circles. However, the discourses on climate change and mental distress are currently overlooking the interlinkages between the two arenas as well as their need to intervene in each other’s isolated spheres. 

Climate change emergencies are deeply linked to psychosocial distress and structural oppression. Night-time heat is associated with poorer sleep, leading to deteriorating mental health. Hot days have shown links with self-harm. Rising temperatures have been correlated with farmer suicide. There are documented effects of occupational heat stress faced by workers. Mental health academia and literature explore the concepts of eco-anxiety (fear of environmental destruction and climate disasters) and solastalgia (distress caused by a changing environment or homeland due to deforestation, floods, etc.), especially among young people. 

Both climate change and mental health disproportionately affect the well-being of people at the margins of society, such as indigenous and rural communities, disabled people, queer people, oppressed castes and races, and working-class communities. They also share attributes: western-dominated, expert-led, individualised discourse, deep interlinkages to systemic and policy failures, as well as structural oppressions. 

ReFrame V aims to discuss such questions as: What is the need for mental health and climate change to engage with each other’s isolated discourses? Who are the stakeholders to be represented in this intersectional discourse? How do we design preventive policy and rehabilitation for climate-related distress? How do we build solidarities between the mental health and climate justice movements?

Mental Health & Climate Change

Legacies in Climate Oppression and Mental Health 

Immanuel Wallerstein’s theory of World Systems (1974) explains how different countries can be divided into the “core” and the “periphery,” where the former represents the white colonial nations and the latter are the oppressed countries that exist only to satisfy the needs of the core. The power distance holds true for the impact of climate change as well. For example, South Asian nations are experiencing hotter weather, longer monsoons, increased droughts, and consequently higher vulnerability to civil conflict induced by resource hoarding. The droughts in Afghanistan have kept 23 million Afghans unfed. The 2020 cyclone Amphan has displaced five million Indians and Bangladeshis. Further, disasters have been seen across Nepal and Bhutan, with the Maldives on the verge of being submerged.

Underlying colonialism was the economic ambition of profits, material exploitation, and market creation, which impoverished communities and natural resources in Asian, African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern nations. This legacy continues with harm unequally distributed as the West reaps the benefits of profit with control over global resources while the side effects reverberate across low and middle-income countries (LMICs), as they continue to be the source of natural resources and dumping grounds for industrial waste while remaining on the periphery of decision-making and lacking access to build protective mechanisms, healthcare, and rehabilitation systems. 

These legacies, systemic failures, and disproportionate harms are also reflected in mental health:  more than 80% of persons living with mental illness live in LMICs. The dominant frameworks of the psy-disciplines were also exports of colonialism and continue to retain Eurocentricity. Whether it is the asylum, the biomedical and neutral scientific approach, or the idea of the mind-body divide, the default voice in current praxis is white, western, and able-bodied. The profit imperative has also been a significant part of psy-disciplines, whether it was in the establishment of asylums, sanatoriums, or psychopharmacology in the aim of a functional, productive labour force.

This default is unspoken and powerful, and the Eurocentric is reflected in approach, research, and praxis. For example, youth in LMICs have been living through natural hazards with interrupted education, trauma, and loss for years, yet, it is only recently that climate change is being discussed as a subset of youth mental health. This is visible in definitions of eco-anxiety or the fear of climate change, which differ greatly between youth in LMICs who have experienced life disruptions, distress, and forced migration as a result of climate change and current definitions that use words like “observation of climate change effects”, “non-specific worry,” and “indirect impacts”.

Is it individual? Is it natural?

Climate change and mental health narratives focus on individual attributes and behaviours, as well the lifestyle factors as both predecessors and required targets of change. From educational institutes to government advocacy programs, the focus remains on the individual, with bans on plastic straws, the treatment gap, of talk therapy or psychiatry, saving electricity, counselling for students in educational institutions, using bucket showers, self-help, psychopharmacology, and reducing individual carbon footprints. This detracts from the systemic and structural factors that influence, inform, and distribute climate change or mental health. 

Not only are individualised narratives of climate protection, disability, and mental health inaccessible, but they can also be classist, casteist, racist, and ableist. The ability to choose straws, take downtime versus working, choose bicycles over cars, eat healthy or organic, and other “lifestyle changes” require privilege.

In both the spheres of climate change and mental health, marginalised communities are exposed to systemic vulnerabilities that lead to or compound psychosocial distress and/or exposure to natural hazards. The state of Kerala recently reported its fishing community as being at high risk of suicide due to livelihood concerns due to disasters and changing marine patterns. Similarly, rural communities and/or agrarian societies more dependent on primary resources are at higher risk due to the combination of natural hazards with a lack of access to health care, socio-economic security, and gaps in policy. 

The World Health Organisation has found that 24.9 million people are displaced every year due to hazardous climate conditions (heavy rainfalls, cyclones, and earthquakes) that push them to the margins of “statelessness”. Communities already experiencing poverty and living near coastal borders are the most vulnerable to the risk of climate migration. This lays bare the systemic failures in both climate change and mental health discourse: natural hazards are a given, but it is policies, priorities, and systems that turn some hazards into disasters. This further cascades into increased psychosocial vulnerability.

A stark example is refugee communities, which are exceedingly vulnerable to climate-related hazards. This intersects with a lack of livelihood rehabilitation, food, and housing security; cultural and linguistic alienation; lack of citizenship recognition; and increased poverty and violence. Similarly, migrant workers are adversely affected by neo-liberal economic priorities and gaps in policies such as lack of access to stable employment, housing, social safety nets, education systems, and health care. For both of these populations, it is institutions, policies, and geo-political dynamics that increase vulnerability to disasters as well as diminish access to rehabilitation and support services. For example, of the Bangladeshi population that survived the 2019 flood, 57.5% experienced suicidal ideation, whereas 5.7% and 2.0% made a suicide plan and attempted suicide, respectively.

Social justice, climate justice, and mental health are intertwined

Adivasi communities and other indigenous communities have experienced a historic engagement with climate oppression. Since pre-colonial times, but especially exacerbated during colonial capitalism and further during neo-colonial development projects, tribal settlements have been targeted for their resources. The advent of multinational and transnational commodity production displaced many indigenous communities of their homeland and livelihood, inducing generational trauma of displacement, insecurity, and infrastructural neglect from the state. 

The settler colonisation projects in both the Global North and South states have targeted the lands of indigenous communities. Such dominant notions of development lie in opposition to tribal knowledge of the natural environment, history, culture, and livelihood. As a marginalised community in both discourses of mental health and climate change, there is no space given to indigenous knowledge, ways of living in harmony with nature, or ways of building resilience that lie at the intersection of wellness and the environment. 

Disabled communities, too, share a unique relationship with climate oppression and climate activism. The latter doesn’t involve consideration of accessibility and disability affirmation in its advocated suggestions, such as “use paper straws” and “boycott cars,” when public transport remains hostile towards disabled people. This is juxtaposed with the relative invisibility of persons with disabilities in policy planning, pre-and post-disaster. Additionally, the rate of disability itself increases during disasters or emergencies due to direct trauma, distress, breakdown of support and welfare services, and a lack of rehabilitation planning and resources.

Multiple marginalised disabled persons are disproportionately exposed to both climate risks, and mental health risks as well as forced migration, homelessness, livelihood insecurity, and inaccessible care. Hence, climate change combined with a disability doesn’t just create mental distress but also increased vulnerability to familial, political, and social neglect, and a lack of structural protective mechanisms and integrative policy worsens the impact of the natural hazard.

Building Solidarity and Allyship

Climate justice and mental health advocacy face parallel hegemonic narratives: the expert-led top-down approach and the decontextualised individualisation of consequences and “solutions”. Climate change and the psy-disciplines also share the common ancestry of colonialism. Hence, not only are imperialist nations disproportionately responsible for climate change and dominating mental health but also LMICs and marginalised communities are peripheral in both climate justice and mental health discourse. In both arenas, the most privileged narratives continue to be the most visible ones. 
Such vicious cycles of marginalisation and oppression are perpetuated not only as a result of past colonisation or its continued legacy but also as a result of local socio-cultural stratifications, state and powerful non-state actors adhering to similar neoliberal systems of development, and the cantering of those with privileges of gender, sexuality, caste, religion, class, and able-bodiedness.

For example, recent Census data from India reveals that 71% of Dalits are landless labourers working on land they do not own, while in rural areas, 58.4% of Dalit households do not own any land at all. With rising water scarcity, Dalit communities, who were already excluded from access to communal resources, are further disadvantaged. Segregation and untouchability are denying them access to natural resources like water and thereby threatening their survival. Any deviance from the norms of ownership is deterred through socially sanctioned violence on the ground and a lack of affirmative policy implementation. Natural hazards such as floods and droughts further amplify structural exclusion and survival and cause chronic and acute stress and hopelessness.
Similarly, queer-trans communities face homelessness due to discriminatory housing policies, documentation failures, and familial abandonment. This often results in people having no choice but to settle in geographical areas prone to climate disasters. 

Even within relief measures, social status determines access to rehabilitation, healthcare, and accommodation. After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Aravanis, a trans community residing in India, were denied access to shelters, visibility in death records, and access to rehabilitation schemes. They faced abuse and harassment by officials and administrative systems. In 2021, a trans climate activist, one of the organisers of the “People’s Climate March” in Pakistan, faced targeted gender-based violence (sexual, verbal, and physical assault) by police authorities.

Policy and Affirmative Action

“Development” paradigms tend to be equated with progress and the pursuit of quality of life but are dictated by Western and unsustainable industrial, neo-liberal economic motives. The role of the environment, labour chains, unpaid care work, and a structural lack of fundamental human rights, are among the multiple factors that enable this model of development to continue. The above factors remain invisibilised, unaccounted for, or devalued in both the mental health and climate change arenas. 

Thus, both require a review of colonial residues and the status quo of economic and political systems. Each also requires a shift in its narrative from being centred around development, “progress,” and the productivity of people to bringing about care and systemic change. This is impossible as long as the political power of hegemonising climate discourse remains in the hands of “experts” who are situated in the Global North, even as they continue to accumulate knowledge and set research agendas built on drawing data from the Global South. There needs to be a radical re-envisioning of mental health care in policy and services for climate-induced distress. Such conversations have to surpass the search for biological causal links behind distress. Mental health advocacy needs to rally for more than therapeutic access and clinician rooms. In both community care and clinical intervention, we need to incorporate a rights-based lens and equip practitioners to respond to structures of oppression, that is socio-cultural, economic, geopolitical, and policy-based. 

It is important to navigate climate distress through affirmative lenses informed by an understanding of class inequality, historical uprooting, generational loss, colonial history, and racial, casteist, and gendered inaccessibility to recourse. Psychosocial justice demands fighting against the reification of climate disasters and their effects as inevitable, unstoppable consequences. 

Further, beyond the mainstream ideas of resilience and “fighting back from adversity,” clinical work needs to go beyond just “cognitive appraising” and contribute to the network-building of tangible avenues toward employment, housing, and food security for uprooted communities. Approaches to conflict zones, disaster areas, and refugee resettlement need to redefine the goals of empowerment as a sustained process and not a short-term product.

The voices of marginalised indigenous communities, rural feminised labour forces, disabled communities, homeless people, queer trans folx, and industrial labourers are informed by the subaltern experience of climate injustice and its mental health impact. Climate policy and mental health policy will only see integration and pedestalisation of rights when efforts of all climate protection, post-disaster material, and community rehabilitation will be anchored in peer groups, community organising, social safety nets and, people’s movements by those at the margins of both climate and mental health systems. Radicalising climate policy and mental health in a more just and humane direction will require disproportionate bias and prioritisation of people and communities, not material success.

This is impossible as long as the political power of hegemonising climate discourse remains in the hands of “experts” who are situated in the Global North, even as they continue to accumulate knowledge and set research agendas built on drawing data from the Global South.

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