Forced Migration: the Mental Costs of Climate Change

Alexi Barnstone - Science and Technology


On the second to last Tuesday of July 2019, 13-year-old Heydi Gámez García was taken off life support. She had been pronounced braindead after an attempted suicide a couple of weeks earlier.

Heydi was a Honduran refugee. She was sent away from her home country by her father, Manuel Gámez, because of political instability and violence. Heydi and her sister, Zoila, received asylum in the US. Her father did not. His attempts to enter the country had been consistently rebuffed by US immigration. Four years past and Manuel Gámez had still not seen his daughter. The long awaited reunion, when it did finally come, was not the reunion either would have wanted.  

As Heydi’s father clutched the hand of his motionless daughter in a hospital bed in Queens, he told CNN that if he could talk to her, if she could hear him, he would say "Please forgive me for failing you, I'm sorry I couldn't be there... I never meant to leave you."

Heydi was in a foreign environment, isolated from her network of friends and her family. Zoila remembers hearing Heydi cry while on the phone to her father, “you will never make it” she was heard saying. 

Heydi’s suicide is a tragic case that speaks to a systemic issue. Heydi, like so many others, experienced the mental anguishes that so often accompany forced migration. Mental anguishes that cost her life.  

Forced migration has a massive impact on mental health. Studies in psychology have shown correlations between forced migration and post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety among other mental afflictions.

While forced migration is already a pressing issue for millions fleeing war, famine and corrupt political regimes, the climate crisis is set to dramatically escalate this global displacement. Among the plethora of other dystopias promised by climate change disaster, the cataclysmic creep of our fossil-fuelled Anthropocene is projected to displace 143 million people by the year 2050, according to a World Bank report. From forced migration to natural disasters such as flooding, storms, wildfires, and heatwaves, climate change is the greatest current threat to humanity’s mental health.

In a 2017 report titled Mental Health and Our Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance the American Psychiatric Association addressed the issue. In a recent meta-analysis 7 – 40 % of all people subjected to climate disasters showed a form of psychopathology. Acute and chronic mental health effects included trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded stress, strains on social relationships, depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, aggression and violence, loss of personally important places, loss of autonomy, loss of personal and occupational identity, feelings of helplessness, fear, fatalism, solastalgia, and ecoanxiety.

The gradual impacts of climate change, like changes in weather and rising sea levels, will cause some of the most resounding chronic psychological consequences, including depression and substance abuse. For example, significant spikes in depression have been observed in farmers in the wheat belt of Western Australia, where inconsistent rainfall has negatively impacted their ability to farm their lands. 

Climate change will have profound effects on the mental health of those experiences at home, but the secondary effects on mental health that come from  the climate crises cannot be overlooked. These changes in climate, extreme weather and rising sea levels, will lead to forced migration. And unlivable land will force millions into a new and burgeoning category, that of the climate refugee.

Stress is a predictor for suicide, and refugees experience unfathomable levels compared to the general population. Additionally, refugees are often ethnic minorities in their country of refuge, which exposes them to the added stress caused by intercultural disparities. Interestingly, however, research into the causes for refugee and asylum seeker stress has found that the most common source of stress was the asylum process itself. 

Millions of climate refugees will have different catalysts for why they were forced into migration, but the result could very well be the same. To this end, climate change is more than a physical threat to our health, it is a psychological one. 

Heydi Gámez García is testiment for the mental anguish of forced migration. If the world fails to mitigate the damages of climate disaster, there will be severe mental health repercussions for millions of individuals.


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