How Climate Change is Fueling a Mental Health Crisis in Urban Zimbabwe

By Taurai Nyandoro

If there are any global issues that have garnered and evoked increased attention in the past few years, it has to be climate change and mental health. A growing body of evidence points to the connection between climate change and mental health. In fact, there is a link between climate change and mental disorders, including fear, anxiety, stress, insomnia, depression, lost self-efficacy, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Urban residents in Zimbabwe are not immune to the impacts of droughts, floods, and heatwaves. Unsurprisingly, these changes have amplified the socioeconomic vulnerabilities of Urbanites, resulting in experiences of climate anxiety, eco-anxiety, and eco-grief. Therefore, it is prudent to recognise the interconnectedness of climate change and mental health and address them as precursors to urban resilience and national development. Typically, i argue that snubbing this phenomenon may become an albatross toward the country’s pursuit of an upper-middle class status by 2030 for the reasons articulated below.

Climate change has had a profound effect on urban residents in Zimbabwe. First, there is a consensus that climate change accounts for the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and heat waves. In the past few years, there have been several heatwaves, the most debilitating being in 2019, which extended for two weeks, and daily temperatures reached 38 °C.

This trend is likely to continue into the future. Recurrent heat waves coupled with urban poverty are psychologically traumatic and can lead to conditions such as acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. In addition, high temperatures combined with urban deprivation are associated with heat-related illnesses and can trigger mental health conditions such as mood disorders. The scenario is hardly ideal for a productive urban sector, considered the manufacturing and industrial hub of the country. Besides, it will further burden the struggling public health system, which seldom caters for mental health.

Second, the disruption of urban livelihoods and food security due to erratic rainfall and other extreme weather events is tremendous, placing an equally enormous psychological strain on residents, including women, men, and other gender identities. Increased economic insecurity increases anxiety and stress levels. Due to prolonged economic malaise in Zimbabwe, most citizens in urban areas have shifted to alternative livelihood activities that are inadvertently climate-reliant. These include the open-space informal trading sector, where participants are exposed to unfavourable weather elements. These extreme weather events often render traders arduous to operate. Typically, street vending of farm produce, dominated by women and contributing 60% of household income, is not insulated from the impacts of climate change. In brief, unfavourable weather elements deprive the protagonists the opportunity to earn income. Undoubtedly, reduced urban livelihoods activities amplify socioeconomic vulnerabilities, thus aggravating mental health risks.

Similarly, other traditional urban livelihood activities, such as small-scale brick-making, have fluctuated over time because of diverse factors, including erratic rainfall, drought, and extreme temperatures. Despite its environmental implications, small-scale brick-making is common among men in some of the poorest urban areas. It is conducted chiefly in backyards and open spaces in urban residential areas. As noted above, it has increasingly come under threat due to climate change diminishing income potential for over 10% of urban men reliant on it. On the whole, the synergistic and cumulative effect of the disruption of urban livelihoods, including informal trading, street vending, and small-scale brick-making, is income insecurity, which often triggers mental disorders, including income anxiety, solastalgia and eco -grief. Shockingly, these conditions are disproportionately prevalent among individuals of lower socioeconomic status and women in urban areas.

Furthermore, the inconsistent weather patterns in Zimbabwe, including the occurrence of rainfall and  unseasonal colder temperatures during summer days, have profound effects on mental wellness. These unexpected shifts in weather conditions disrupt the daily routines and expectations of individuals creates a sense of frustration and helplessness, leading to increased stress and anxiety. Akin to their rural counterparts, urban residents reliant on predictable weather for their daily activities and livelihoods experience a sense of uncertainty and unease due to unseasonal changes. Temperature fluctuations can disrupt sleep patterns, affect mood regulation, and exacerbate existing mental health conditions. Therefore, it is crucial to recognise these weather-related mental disorders in order to develop adaptive strategies that support individuals in coping with the emotional and psychological impacts of changing weather patterns.

Finally, the link between climate change and mental health creates a pernicious cycle of immense proportions. Critically, pre-existing mental health issues due to other underlying factors reduce residents ’ capacity to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change. As a result, residents feel overwhelmed by the demands of adapting to extreme weather events, which decreases their likelihood of taking corrective measures. In essence, climate impact intensifies social and economic stressors in urban areas. This situation is more pronounced among elderly people living in informal settlements, who are disproportionately vulnerable to social and economic stressors. Additionally, pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities further amplify the impacts of climate change within these communities; thus, residents experience eco-grief, fear, trauma, and anxiety about future threats.

Therefore, it is essential to implement multifaceted strategies that recognise the intersection between climate change and mental health. First, it is necessary to review germane policies while adjusting them so that they can integrate mental health into existing frameworks. Second, implementing environmentally sustainable practises helps to manage anxiety and stress disorders, as well as trauma arising from climate change. Third, there is a need for urban community resilience interventions aimed at ensuring access to quality clinical services and community support systems to address the various forms of psychosocial distress caused by climatic hazards. Finally, treating climate change and mental  health as a social justice issue necessitates measures aimed at redressing socioeconomic disparities across all spheres.

In conclusion, the interplay between climate change and mental well-being has become an urgent concern within Zimbabwean cities. Climate-induced livelihood losses, coupled with socioeconomic disparities, have created negative psychological conditions, including income anxieties, mood disorders, trauma, and eco-grief. Therefore, immediate attention is required, including policy-level intervention alongside community and clinical programmes


Taurayi Nyandoro is a Mental health Social worker

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