After the Disaster: The toll storms take on mental health in India

Damage caused by severe flooding in Kerala 2018
Kairali News
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Kerala, India

After the Disaster: The toll storms take on mental health in India

Does climate change impact mental health?  The documentary “After the Disaster” attempts to answer that question by looking at the impact three natural disasters –  Cyclone Ockhi, a severe tropical storm that occurred in 2017; severe flooding in 2018; and recent landslides sparked by extreme rainfall – all had on Kerala, a coastal state in southwest India.

According to experts at India’s National Centre for Earth Studies, climate change has played a vital role in these recent natural disasters in large part by altering monsoon rain patterns. Climate change scientist Dr. K.K. Ramachandran explained that the typical monsoon season has shifted to later in the year. And while the average number of monsoon days has decreased, the number of days of extreme rainfall that can produce these disasters has grown.

In the aftermath of such extreme weather, the diagnosis of mental ailments has rapidly increased in the affected regions, said Dr. Abdul Razak, a psychologist from the Government Medical College in Manjeri who has been providing treatment to flood-affected people. In the village of Pothukal, one of the worst affected by this year’s flooding and landslides, psychologists working in the region found that 30-40% of children were suffering from severe mental trauma in a place without a previous history of diagnosis.

Child in a refugee shelter
Children are often the most greatly impacted by trauma from natural disasters. Shelters are now bringing in counselors to help them talk about their fears and anxieties / Credit: K Rajendran 

Additionally, in some villages, mental health experts from the government medical college found that fears of another disaster paved the way for superstitious beliefs that kept people from going to certain parts of the village. Ghost stories about unrecovered dead bodies have also caused mental trauma, particularly among children.

To overcome these challenges, climate change experts are promoting better adaptation and mitigation mechanisms to prepare communities to defend themselves or stave off the impacts of climate change. At the same time, psychologists in the state are striving to address the rise in mental disorders in the worst-affected areas by visiting relief camps, homes and schools to provide counseling and medical care.

Joe Sunny
Psychiatrist Joe Sunny makes regular visits to communities impacted by severe storms like this fishing village hit hard by Cyclone Ockhi / Credit: K Rajendran

Kerala’s health department has also dispatched more psychologists to flood-affected regions and ensured strict follow up with those suffering from trauma.

Research linking mental disorders to climate change hasn’t begun yet in Kerala, but doctors say the anecdotal evidence is clear: they are seeing more cases of trauma in places bearing the brunt of climate-related natural disasters.

For more on the situation, watch “After the Disaster.”

This documentary was supported through a grant from the Earth Journalism Network's Asia-Pacific project.

Banner image: Large parts of Pathar Village were destroyed by recent landslides sparked by severe rainfall / Credit: K Rajendran

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