Examining the connections between climate change impacts and mental health

5 min readMay 16, 2023


Dr. Pamela Kaithuru, Kenya Meteorological Department, Dr. Linda Ogallo, Joyce Jelagat, and Calistus Wachana

With contributions from the IGAD Climate Change Technical Working Group.

© Health Central

Climate and its impacts are becoming increasingly common as extreme weather events increase in magnitude and frequency. The Eastern Africa region’s local and international media headlines are riddled with pictures of dying livestock, destroyed homes and livelihoods, and malnourished children. Press briefings from the region have become accustomed to appeal after appeal for aid to feed communities as the threat of famine continues to loom time after time.

As the climate impact on food and water security continues to recur, the conversation on climate and its impacts on health takes a back banner.

The discussion on the mental health implications of the continued horrors faced by vulnerable communities as they face the climate crisis in the East African region is one that we are yet to have.

Climate change, directly and indirectly, affects people’s health by worsening existing health problems and creating new ones. Direct impacts include respiratory and heart diseases, vector-borne illnesses, water and food-related illnesses, injuries, and even death.

Meanwhile, indirect impacts, such as exposure to climate disasters like droughts, floods, and heatwaves, have harmed vulnerable communities by destroying property, taking lives, and disrupting livelihoods. Exposure to these events can lead to mental health problems among affected individuals, contributing to the overall disease burden of nations.

The impact of environmental exposure and climate change on mental health has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). Air pollution, poor water quality and quantity, food insecurity, and ecological changes are among the many impacts noted. Factors such as livelihood sources may lead to increased vulnerability, resulting in forced migration, conflicts, and loss of independence.

During the Stockholm50+ Environmental Summit, world leaders noted the increasing hazards climate change poses to people’s mental health and well-being. Issues of concern include emotional discomfort, mood, anxiety, sadness, grief, suicidal behavior, and substance use disorders, as their likelihood increases among individuals exposed to such occurrences.

The mental health discussion in Africa has taken prominence in some parts of the continent in the last decade, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, conversation on the impacts of climate change on mental health generally has, in the past, taken a back seat in climate discussions in the Global South.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first recognition of the linkages between climate change and mental health was in the working group II report of its sixth assessment report published in February 2022. The report stated with very high confidence the increasing mental health challenges being caused by the negative impacts related to climate. To quote the report,

mental health impacts are expected to arise from exposure to extreme weather events, displacement, migration, famine, malnutrition, degradation or destruction of health and social care systems, and climate-related economic and social losses and anxiety and distress associated with worry about climate change.

© Madras Courier

In a podcast created in partnership between IGAD Climate Predictions and Applications Center (ICPAC) and BBC Media Action, communities recount their experience with the prolonged drought. The podcast talked about the cases of suicide experienced in the Horn of Africa because of the drought and the hardship faced by those left behind.

Unfortunately, while suicide among pastoralists due to the climate-related extremes’ impacts is increasingly becoming common, most climate response does not include mental health considerations. IPCC notes that health systems globally are generally poorly resourced, and their capacity to respond to climate change is weak, with mental health support being particularly inadequate.

Policies for countries in Eastern Africa that deal with climate change do not clearly mention mental health. However, there is growing recognition of the significance of addressing the impacts of climate change on mental health. The government of Kenya, for example, has created a National Climate Change Action Plan with a focus on the effects of climate change on mental health. The strategy includes a commitment to increase knowledge of how climate change affects mental health and to incorporate mental health considerations into programs and policies related to climate change.

Similarly, the government of Rwanda has created a National Climate and Environment Fund with an emphasis on creating community-based adaptation and resilience, which can assist in addressing the adverse effects of climate change on mental health. The fund supports programs like neighborhood-based psychosocial support networks that work to advance mental health and well-being.

The Paris Agreement established the international goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and strategies for limiting it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Signatory countries are obligated to prepare and communicate Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to show commitment toward meeting national climate ambitions. This presents a significant opportunity for governments to prioritize the mental health of their citizens in the context of a changing climate. Globally, mental health and climate change are increasingly recognized in NDCs.

While there is room for improvement regarding inclusion and specific mention of mental health, there is increasing recognition of the relationship between climate change and mental health.

For example,Maldives and Albania’s, NDCs identify mental health as one of the climate-related threats. Similarly, Saint Kitts and Nevis’ NDC adaptation strategies include the development of a national program to address mental health issues in the aftermath of disasters.

Although some Eastern African countries’ NDCs do not directly mention mental health, efforts are being made to address climate change’s impacts on human health. For instance, Burundi’s NDC recognizes the linkages between climate change and health, including the higher spread of vector-borne diseases and deaths due to flooding. South Sudan aims to strengthen climate-resilient health systems and conduct research to understand health and climate change relationships.

To promote climate resilience and achieve Sustainable Development Goal Three on health and well-being, mental health considerations should be incorporated into NDCs, disaster risk management, adaptation, and resilience-building strategies and initiatives in the Eastern African region. While current policies do not directly mention mental health, there is growing recognition of its significance in addressing the impacts of climate change on health. To this end, policymakers should prioritize research funding to understand the nexus of climate change and mental health in Africa and prioritize mental health as part of relevant policies.

Furthermore, building climate resilience requires interventions that promote holistic health for individuals and communities, including universal access to primary healthcare and mental health treatment. It is vital to understand that health is not merely the absence of disease, but complete physical, mental, and social well-being, as highlighted by WHO.




🌍🛰️ Climate Services, early warnings and Earth Observation for Sustainable Development in Eastern Africa.