HealthWise: Climate emergency fuelling eco-anxiety, despair

Published on Nov 23, 2019 08:27 PM IST

Oxford Dictionaries declared “climate emergency” as the 2019 word of the year, following a hundred-fold increase in its usage. Another term that made the shortlist but not the cut was “eco-anxiety”, which is defined as a feeling of chronic helplessness, depression, fear, fatalism and resignation to the impending environmental catastrophe.

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Oxford Dictionaries declared “climate emergency” as the 2019 word of the year, following a hundred-fold increase in its usage. Another term that made the shortlist but not the cut was “eco-anxiety”, which is defined as a feeling of chronic helplessness, depression, fear, fatalism and resignation to the impending environmental catastrophe.

Unlike the documented mental health fallout of disasters such as droughts, floods and earthquakes, which lead to panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder and increased suicide ideation and suicides – such as among farmers during sustained drought – chronic stress and despair from less extreme events like air pollution is less recognised despite becoming a visible affliction in many developing countries, such as India and China.

“The chronic affect of eco-anxiety is not as visible as acute ecological emergencies like earthquakes and droughts, but they are documented to affect mental health, leading to fear, anger, frustration, despair, guilt and exhaustion from feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and inability to make a difference,” said Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Hospitals, who is getting an increasing number of children and parents across his centres in north India with air pollution-related anxieties.

“Parents are among the hardest hit because they worry about the planet they are leaving their children and future generations,” said Dr Parikh.

One such parent is New Delhi-resident Komal Singh, who tracks the air quality index (AQI) in Delhi-NCR obsessively and keeps her 7-year-old daughter Shreya home from school on days it hovers close to 300, after which the air quality will enter “very poor” zone. Aside from the days schools were closed during Delhi’s air emergency, Shreya has missed close to two weeks of school since October. Singh’s toddler Samvit, 3, stays cocooned all day at home, which reverberates with the hum of half a dozen air-purifiers.

“The air is so foul, what do you do? I’ve had to stop Shreya’s tennis lessons. In other countries, schools are shut when the AQI touches 200 (poor category), but if I do that, my kids won’t get an education. All the other parents in her school also keep children indoors,” said Singh, 41, who is considering moving out of Delhi with her family.

Eco-anxiety is adding to childhood and teen inactivity in north India and leading to increased physical isolation, obesity and over-dependence on social media and digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, laptops and television.

Three in four 11-17 year olds are not getting the one hour of daily exercise needed, which raises their chances of developing, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems, including depression, according to a new World Health Organisation study of 1.6 million students in 146 countries released on Friday.

“With rising air pollution, urbanisation and increasing access to mobile technology keeping students indoors, inactivity will increase in the coming decades, and with it, non communicable diseases (NCDs) will go up,” said Dr Randeep Guleria, director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, on Friday. NCDs, which include heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, account for 60% of all deaths in India, killing more people than all infectious diseases and injuries put together.

“You have to balance things out as outdoor activities are good for children, but unhealthy air is not. When you have high levels of air pollution, outdoor physical activity should be restricted. You should wait for the sun come out and to at least for the pollutants rise up,” said Dr Guleria.

The health benefits of outdoor activity are not affected by air pollution provided very vigorous exercise is avoided on bad air days, found a study from China, which is among the few places in the world with air toxicity peaks comparable with cities in Indo-Gangetic plains. It was published int he Journal of Epidemiology in September.

Another study from China published in The Journal of Paediatrics recommended schools plan and adjust the intensity of outdoor physical activity on the basis of the current air pollution levels and children be asked to stop physical activity if they start coughing, wheezing or experience chest tightness.

Children must be offered a supportive urban environment for play, including green spaces, parks and urban forests (>0.3 hectares) within a 0.5 km radius, and pavements free of encroachment for walking. That, coupled with schools adopting flexible timetables to plan for unstructured activity, sport, athletics and other activities on clean air days and keep indoor study for days when air quality deteriorates, will help children get the physical activity they need to stay healthy.

BOX

Climate Emergency

Chronic and acute mental health effects

Feelings of helplessness, fear, fatalism, solastalgia (distress from environmental change), and eco-anxiety

Depression

Anxiety

Substance abuse

Aggression and violence

Loss of autonomy and control

Strain on social relationships

Loss of personal and occupational identity

Compounded stress

Trauma and shock

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Suicide

Source: Mental Health and Our Changing Climate 2017, American Psychological Association

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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