The Link Between Climate Change And Farmers’ Mental Health We Never Knew Existed

Today’s climate change rhetoric is mainly focussed on carbon emissions, renewable energy and international politics. Consequentially, the impact of climate change on health has received relatively low attention. Even less research has been done on the impact of climate change on the mental health of the population.

A recent study published by a research team at the University of California, Berkeley, has revealed a strong correlation between climate change and farmer suicides in India. The research goes on to show that over the last three decades, more than 59,000 farmers have committed suicide in India as a direct or indirect result of erratic weather patterns caused due to anthropogenic climate change. The researchers have also predicted that suicide rates will increase with global warming. In a 2013 study, UC Berkley researchers had even predicted that climate change would also cause increased rates of human conflicts and violence in the next 50 years.

India’s agricultural sector has been hit hard by erratic weather patterns over the last decade. Unseasonal floods and droughts have ruined harvest seasons for thousands of farmers across India, and have led to rapid inflation in food prices. Erratic weather patterns not only drive poor farmers to commit suicide, but have a domino effect on the rest of the population as well. With decreased harvest, food prices soar and the poor sections of the society are pushed to starvation. This leads to an increase in mental trauma and suicides among the most vulnerable sections of the society. Psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and aggression have also increased in vulnerable climatic regions across the world.

Erratic climatic patterns in India have been plaguing farmers for decades now. (Photo by Mahendra Parikh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The results of this research throw light on two other significant aspects.

1. There must be a large section of the population which is undergoing significant mental trauma as a result of climate change. But, they have not committed suicide yet.

2. The situation must be similar in other countries similarly situated as India. Considering the number of countries with vulnerable climates, the number of people mentally traumatised by the adversities of climate change seems to be staggering.

“It was a terrible season – they lost everything due to the floods and were debt-ridden,” says Ruma, an agricultural worker from Birbhum district in rural West Bengal. Two years ago, her brother and his entire family had committed suicide by poisoning themselves, after their onion fields were completely flooded due to an unseasonal flood during summer. This was not an isolated incident. Unseasonal floods and droughts have wreaked havoc in India’s agricultural sector – and have forced thousands of poor farmers to commit suicide, as a last resort.

This dire situation is also due to the fact that most poor farmers are heavily debt-ridden, and therefore rely on their harvests to repay their debts and make ends meet. When an unexpected flash flood or a sudden drought destroys their only crops, they have no way out and are often compelled to end their lives.

“Anything that will affect occupational stability is going to affect farmers’ mental health,” says Vikram Patel, an Indian psychiatrist and mental health expert with Harvard Medical School.

While government representatives will meet next month at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn to deliberate on climate change at a macro level, the local governments in India need to take prompt action in light of UC Berkley’s findings. In some parts of India, local governments often pay compensations to families of farmers in the event of their deaths. This policy arguably acts as an additional incentive for farmers to commit suicide so that their families can get monetary compensations.

In an interview, Tamma Carleton from the UC Berkley research team comments on the policy measures which can be taken to mitigate climate-induced farmer suicides – “[…] Policies like crop insurance, which protect farm incomes from the vagaries of the climate, could be successful in reducing suicides. Access to low-interest loans through well-functioning rural credit markets may also help limit the damage caused by warming temperatures, as farmers can access quality seed without incurring debt burdens that become insurmountable. Other possible adaptive responses could include farm-based solutions to protect yields against warming temperatures, such as crop switching to increase heat tolerance, or investment in irrigation technologies to combat rainfall variability.”

Promoting and encouraging adaptation measures in agricultural practices, such as promoting climate-resilient genetically modified (GMO) crops and reformulating compensation schemes for farmers – are crucial steps which need to be taken to stop the suicidal epidemic among farmers.

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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Mahendra Parikh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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