Climate anxiety likely to worsen in South Africa, warns expert

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Climate change is harming people’s mental well-being and the impact will only worsen, warned psychologist Garret Barnwell.

A member of the Climate Justice Action Group pickets outside the Gauteng Agriculture and Rural Development offices in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, April 22, 2021. Photo: @ Earthlife_JHB / Twitter

JOHANNESBURG – Climate change is harming people’s mental well-being and the impact will only worsen, warned psychologist Garret Barnwell, author of a report on the subject.

Barnwell has worked for years with communities struggling with environmental issues, said people in poorer countries like South Africa, where inequalities are huge, are even more vulnerable to climate anxiety.

His report, “The Psychological Consequences on Mental Health of Climate Change in South Africa”, was released in September.

AFP spoke to Barnwell in the Wilds Nature Reserve in the middle of an upscale Johannesburg suburb to talk about climate anxiety.

His responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

WHAT IS CLIMATE ANXIETY?

Climate anxiety has grown in importance over the past two years. This term has been very useful, especially in calling attention to anger, anxiety, grief, fear, or worry.

However, it is much more complicated in the countries of the South … we live in places where there are multiple social injustices, it is not only climate change that is being experienced.

[It can be] an amplifier of many other social injustices, so in that sense we have to think about how this is framed.

WHAT ARE THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE?

First the direct impacts, such as natural disasters, the second (is) seeing someone else suffer.

The anticipation of something happening is where climate anxiety comes in.

These things are not separate, so they accumulate throughout life.

Most people will experience several different things; they will see other people suffer, they might go through their own kind of problems and anticipate a future that might not be viable for some.

HOW ARE YOUNG PEOPLE EXPERIENCING CLIMATE CHANGE?

(They) experience multiple adverse events, they are not only psychological, but they are in fact material events that have dramatic impacts on daily life.

For example, the floods in Beira in Mozambique, we also had historic droughts in South Africa, Cape Town was one of the first cities in the world to be threatened with completely drying up.

These events in the countries of the South, they are not new and have dramatic impacts on everyone.

Whether it’s a natural disaster or storm surges, children’s schools are disrupted, routine anxieties are shattered.

They may feel anxious, hopeless or hopeless, some may not know what is going on but live in a life of relative deprivation, compared to before.

(Climate change could exacerbate) the wounds that already exist in society, especially in a country like South Africa which has a higher level of inequality.

This will create great insecurity in everyday life.

HOW IS THIS ANXIETY RELATED TO GOVERNMENT INACTION?

It is knowing that the adult world does not do what is necessary to avoid the crisis.

Young people really depend on the adult world for care, to make the right decisions, (so) when you see the adult world not doing something, it creates a feeling of institutional betrayal.

HOW CAN YOU ADVISE YOUNG PEOPLE WITH SUCH ANXIARIES?

We have to be careful not to present it as a mental illness, but take anxiety as a wake-up call.

Some people experience significant distress, which can lead to destructive behavior, binge drinking, or self-harm and suicide.

The solution is not necessarily therapy, although therapy can support the process, we need political action.

I think there is often a “fatherhood” that takes place, where we think the kids can’t handle the information, but in fact, they’re very aware of it.

If we mirror the type of actions that can take place, connecting to various things in a city or town, it’s sort of pro-environmental, validating not only people’s feelings in what we’re saying but also in what we do.


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