Ripon Mondal, a 19-year-old university student in Bangladesh, observes the stress weighing down his father as they grapple with the consequences of a devastating drought in 2022 that decimated their watermelon harvest. Living in the Kamarkhola Union, surrounded by rivers, Mondal’s family is emblematic of many in Bangladesh who are isolated from vital services, particularly mental health care.
“Observing my father’s anguish has been heartbreaking. He’s struggling to finance our education, and the mounting debts are a constant source of distress,” Mondal expressed. “Getting psychological assistance isn’t easy; one would have to traverse great distances, crossing rivers, to find a psychologist in a hospital.”
Bangladesh, home to about 170 million individuals, is on the frontline of climate change’s detrimental effects. From unpredictable floods and prolonged droughts to rising sea levels and violent storms, these changing environmental patterns are taking a significant toll on people’s mental well-being. Health professionals and organizations are sounding the alarm, highlighting the country’s under-preparedness in addressing this looming health crisis.
Mental health specialists emphasize that severe weather events and climate-induced catastrophes can exacerbate or even trigger anxiety and depression. Yet, these conditions remain largely unexplored and misunderstood in Bangladesh. Astonishingly, a 2019 government survey revealed that almost 20% of the country’s adults grapple with mental health problems.
A groundbreaking study, supported by the World Bank and published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, drew a concerning correlation between increasing temperatures, humidity, and severe flooding with a rise in anxiety and depression cases. Syed Tanveer Rahman, a psychology professor at the University of Dhaka, painted a bleak picture, “Venture outside urban centers like Dhaka, and you’ll find access to mental health care severely restricted.”
Though the government acknowledged climate change’s potential mental health impacts in its 2022 adaptation plan, the focus was predominantly on women and disabled individuals. The plan, however, doesn’t sufficiently address the broader mental health infrastructure needs of the country.
Innovative solutions are being sought by NGOs, mental health professionals, and start-ups to bridge this gap. Moner Bondhu, a pioneering mental healthcare platform, has joined forces with the UN Development Programme. They aim to provide psychological support to inhabitants of Dacope, an especially remote and climate-sensitive region on Bangladesh’s southern coast. Tawhida Shiropa, CEO of Moner Bondhu, founded the start-up in 2016 and underscores the holistic definition of resilience. She believes that while physical assets and infrastructure are crucial, it’s imperative to recognize that disasters also deeply affect mental states.
International studies are also shedding light on the profound psychological impact of climate change, coining terms like “climate anxiety” and “eco-grief”. Sally Weintrobe of the Climate Psychology Alliance highlighted that people in climate-sensitive nations like Bangladesh not only suffer the direct impacts of these environmental shifts but also lack the resources for recovery and rehabilitation.
The World Bank predicts a potential internal displacement of 13 million Bangladeshis by 2050 due to climate change. The pervasive sense of helplessness, often tied to economic conditions, augments the climate-induced mental distress.
Traditional taboos surrounding mental health further complicate the issue, with many individuals in rural areas seeking solace in traditional medicines and healers. Depon Chandra Sarker, a child psychologist at the Patuakhali Medical College, points out that mental health interventions are usually a last resort, sought only when situations become uncontrollably dire.
The need of the hour is sustained support, particularly for climate-affected communities. With technology’s aid, like telehealth services, immediate relief and long-term assistance can be rendered more accessible. Initiatives like Moner Bondhu, which trains local volunteers, and professionals like psychiatrist Mehedi Hasan, who organizes virtual sessions for health workers, demonstrate innovative paths forward.
As Mehedi Hasan rightly says, “Facing the challenges head-on is imperative. It’s about equipping the vulnerable to remain functional amidst mounting adversities.”