Indigenous Mental Health in a Changing Climate

By Bridget Hogue

At first glance, the world’s changing climate may not appear to be associated with mental health complications. Nevertheless, research has shown that climate change can have both direct and indirect effects on mental health. Those who are exposed to climate change conditions can directly experience trauma, and those with physical health conditions or communal changes resulting from climate change may indirectly experience mental health issues (Berry et al, 2010). For example, a physical health condition like heat exhaustion stems from prolonged heat exposure and is often associated with mental health consequences. Climate change also indirectly effects mental health through community well-being; when physical environments are damaged, the social environment becomes damaged as well (Berry et al, 2010).

The multifaceted effects of climate change on mental health are especially relevant for low-income or vulnerable groups. Because of the strong cultural importance of land and natural environments, Indigenous peoples constitute one of the most vulnerable groups regarding this issue. Research has identified a positive relationship between green, natural spaces and a person’s perceived mental health, overall well-being, and resilience (Hatala et al, 2020). This connection is especially strong for Indigenous groups because of their special relationship with land. Unlike the perspective which western culture has promoted for centuries, most Indigenous groups do not view land as something owned or sold as a commodity—they consider land to be sacred (Hatala et al, 2020).

With this in mind, what are the consequences of climate change for Indigenous peoples’ mental health? Middleton and colleagues (2020) conducted a vast literature review to answer this question and investigate the specific problems at play for Indigenous groups. Their research linked short term weather variables such as storms, floods, temperature, and seasonality with psychological impacts such a depression, anxiety, self-harm-suicide, PTSD, behavioral disorders, and psychological resilience. Subacute and chronic exposures to climatic variables—drought, sea-ice changes, wildlife changes, vegetation, and altered seasons—were linked to emotional responses like worry, sadness, anger, loss and ongoing emotional distress. However, such climatic variables were not linked to severe psychological complications such as suicide ideation, depression, or PTSD (Middleton et al, 2020). Because Latin America faces disproportionate effects of climate change, these Indigenous communities may be especially at risk for mental health issues. However, while the scoping review is highly informative about the effects of climate change on Indigenous peoples’ mental health, the vast majority of the data comes from Canada, Australia, and the United States. In fact, regarding research focusing on the relationship between Indigenous mental health and climatic stressors, no data or empirical articles have been published in any region of Latin America (Middleton, 2020).

Despite this lack of research, the investigation of climate change on Indigenous peoples’ physical health in Latin America can serve as an indicator for mental health complications. Indigenous groups of the Amazon, the Andean region, and the Central American and Caribbean regions currently face climatic issues detrimental to their personal health. In the Colombian region of the Amazon, the primary issues are the dying back of the rainforest, high temperatures, and decreased moisture of the soil. As a result, Indigenous groups have reported respiratory and intestinal diseases as well as fatigues and headaches caused by the heat (Verner & Kronik, 2010). Warming, changing patterns in rainfall, a rapid tropical glacier retreat, and the impacts on mountain wetlands are the main climate issues in the Andean region. Because of the precipitation variability, the Quecha and Aymara people have a diminished water supply. The lack of water creates a lack of crop cultivation, leading to malnutrition, developmental issues, and damaged immune systems (Verner & Kronik, 2010). In Central America and the Caribbean, hurricanes, storms, destruction of coral reefs, and mangroves are the greatest climactic threats to Indigenous groups. Storms can destroy a vast number of natural resources used both for food security and livelihood (Verner & Kronik, 2010). The physical and mental health of Indigenous populations should be more seriously considered due to the different climactic issues across all regions of Latin America.

The cultural institutions and health of Indigenous groups are strongly connected. Although the current research is lacking in Latin America, the mental health issues among all Indigenous peoples are often linked to historical experiences of colonization and dispossession, which could further impact their relationship with land and climate (United Nations, 2020). How might climate change be exacerbating any historical trauma which Indigenous peoples currently experience?

More research on climate-induced mental illness among Indigenous groups in Latin America is necessary to understand the gravity of the issue and propose effective solutions for diagnoses and treatment. In addition, the global north holds a key responsibility of working to combat climate change in order to preserve Indigenous culture and well-being. Nations must work together to combat the preexisting damage, allow Indigenous peoples to maintain their sacred connection with land, and thus promote physical and mental health among Indigenous populations.

Bridget Hogue (she/her) is a psychology student in her third and final year from West Chester, PA. She plans to study rehabilitation and mental health counseling in graduate school next fall. In addition to psychology, Bridget has a Spanish minor and pursues a certificate in Latin American Studies. Her writing and research primarily focuses on mental health in Latin America. Additional topics include women's health, LGBTQ+ inclusivity, and the effects of the War on Drugs in Latin America. Bridget enjoys playing guitar, walking her three dogs, and cooking in her free time. She is also a mentor for a non-profit organization known as Strong Women, Strong Girls. She is thrilled to be a part of CLAS this semester and to continue discovering more about Latin America!


References

Berry, H.L., Bowen, K. & Kjellstrom, T. (2010). Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. Int J Public Health 55, 123–132  https://doi-org.pitt.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s00038-009-0112-0

Hatala, A.R., Njeze, C., Morton, D. et al. (2020). Land and nature as sources of health and resilience among Indigenous youth in an urban Canadian context: a photovoice exploration. BMC Public Health. 20(538).  https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-08647-z

Middleton, J. et al. (2020). Indigenous mental health in a changing climate: a systematic scoping review of the global literature. Environ. Res. Lett. 15(5). 

United Nations. (2020). Health For Indigenous Peoples. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/mandated-areas1/he....

Verner, D. & Kronik, J. (2010). Indigenous peoples and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Bank.

 

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