Whether it’s the remarkably low air quality in Delhi, India or the wildfires burning through Australia, there has been a stark increase in the prevalence of extreme weather events in recent years. The effects of climate change on humans is reported to be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. While the physical impacts of climate change have been verified, there needs to be a greater focus on mental health.
After the 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta more than 88,000 residents were forced to evacuate. The damage done by the fires was upwards of $3.6 billion making it the most catastrophic and expensive disaster in Canadian history. Many individuals were forced to relocate, faced job loss and many other psychosocial stressors. To learn more about the impacts of this phenomenon on resident’s mental health, studies were conducted on both adults and youth. One study of 379 evacuees indicated that evacuation from the fires was associated with higher rates of PTSD and depression scores in adults. Another study on 3,070 middle school children highlights the impacts on youth mental health and stresses the importance of long-term mental health support to create better coping strategies.
Generally, extreme weather events are associated with an increased incidence of PTSD, depressive disorders, anxiety and psychological distress. It is essential to provide ample mental health services, especially in areas that are prone to natural disasters. For example, when the Philippines, a country more susceptible to natural disasters, was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, they found their mental health services were severely shorthanded to meet the demands. Since then, with the support of the World Health Organization and other partners, they were able to train healthcare workers on mental health support in 100% of general health facilities in the affected region. Climate change has increased the prevalence of natural disasters in the area. Providing this training for healthcare workers will allow the area to be better prepared in the case of a future event. Similarly, after the destructive tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, the country realized the value in investing in mental health services. As a result, the nation was able to double the number of districts that provide support services from 10 to 20 out of 27.
These nations serve as a reminder for others to add mental health support to their natural disaster preparedness plans. The World Health Organization and Pan-American Health Organization have been working with countries in Central America to ensure that they are well-equipped to meet the influx of mental health support demand following any future natural disasters. Rescue and recovery workers are another key population that require support. A study conducted on recovery workers of 9/11 shows that the physical and mental health effects are prevalent, even nine years post-incidence. Many other past studies indicate that physical, emotional and mental exhaustion may result from continued and recurrent exposure to traumatic situations.
Delivering mental health support services to post-disaster areas may be challenging if the area is in a remote or isolated region. This particularly affects the ability to provide long-term support for affected individuals. One potential solution is to integrate telemedicine into healthcare services. This technology increases access to specialists and highly-trained support workers using video calls at a low cost. It also allows for continuity of care between the physician and patient even if one relocates. A study evaluating the impacts of telemedicine in Australia reports its benefits, particularly for those in rural and remote communities who did not have adequate mental health services prior to implementation. Telemedicine is also a good option to provide long-term support for youth. Another study compared in person mental health services to interactive video conferences and found similar rates of remission from depression for children. These results suggest that incorporating technology into care will bridge the gap between the high demand for mental health support services and healthcare providers.
Overall, the rise in global extreme weather events is a wake-up call for healthcare workers to be prepared for disasters. Mental health services are critical during post-disaster treatment and appropriate preparedness programs should be setup as preemptive measures, especially in disaster-prone areas.
Tharani is a fourth year undergraduate student in the Medical Sciences program at Western University. She is hoping to learn more about the impacts of health policy and systems level research on patient outcomes.