Women and low earners are ‘prone to disaster-related depression’

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[CAPE TOWN] People living in disaster-affected communities in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to suffer from depression, with women, black Africans and low-income people most likely, an analysis has found.

Climate change is one of the most defining challenges for sustainable development in the region and causes increasingly frequent and intense weather phenomena such as floods and droughts.

South Africa has recorded 54 natural disaster events from 2000 to 2019 – the third highest in Africa after Kenya with 60 events and Mozambique with 55, according to the South African researchers’ review.

Until now, they say, national studies on the potential link between the onset of depression and community disasters in sub-Saharan Africa have been lacking. This prompted them to analyze data from 17,255 adults enrolled in the South African National Income Dynamics Study from 2008 to 2017 who were not depressed at the start of the study.

“The likelihood of depression due to exposure to community disasters was particularly pronounced among women, black Africans, and those with lower education or income.”

Andrew Tomita, University of KwaZulu-Natal

“The likelihood of depression due to exposure to community disasters was particularly pronounced among women, black Africans, and people with lower education or income levels,” says Andrew Tomita, lead author of the study published on Tuesday. last month (April 6) in PLOS Climate.

“Although climate change is a major driver of disasters, there is not enough attention in sub-Saharan Africa or large-scale evidence that attests to the mental health impact of community disasters.”

Tomita, a senior lecturer at the School of Nursing and Public Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, says SciDev.Net that the findings are consistent with evidence that exposure to stressful and catastrophic events such as floods, drought, mass unrest due to xenophobia, and agricultural losses due to fires could lead to depression.

“Nor is it a surprise to find the association between cumulative exposure to community disasters and the first onset of depression in certain socially vulnerable populations, given the historical South African context which is marked by the legacy of patriarchal social structures and persistent poverty,” says Tomita. .

Garret Barnwell, an independent clinical psychologist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, adds that the study provides new insights, as stressful events such as catastrophic floods and significant loss of life leave a lasting impact on communities without access. resources on a personal level. level.

Barnwell explains that most people in South Africa are uninsured and have little savings.

There’s a history of failing municipalities and failing infrastructure in relation to disasters, says Barnwell, who last year published a report on climate change and mental health in South Africa. He says people often feel abandoned as the burden of responsibility shifts from communities to the individual, creating an increased sense of insecurity.

“This is a well-executed study using two sets of data that are considered reliable,” says Caradee Wright, a public health specialist who heads the Environment and Health Research Group at the South African Health Council. medical research.

“Disasters can certainly affect mental health, so it’s worth conducting the study.”

Tomita says children who are also vulnerable to disasters were not included due to a lack of data on depression during the study period.

Although women and black Africans suffer more from disasters, he adds, they have fewer resources and support to help them cope psychologically.

It suggests rapid access to community-based interventions for disaster survivors, with priority given to socially vulnerable groups.

“It makes sense since many of these groups won’t have the means to deal with disaster recovery and it can lead to mental health issues, like depression,” Wright agrees.

The study recommends changes to disaster risk management policies and proposes social food subsidies that could cushion income and crop losses resulting from disasters.

“[The study] helps identify where investments should go and how we should support people from these impacted communities,” adds Barnwell.

For Wright, a key question remains, “How will this information get to the right people to help bring about this change and translate research into action?”

This piece was produced by the UK Sub-Saharan Africa office of SciDev.Net.

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