Blue and the Blues | Mental Health Awareness Week | Nele Reyniers
In the past year, the benefits of green and green-blue spaces for our mental wellbeing have received plenty of attention. But what role does water play? And how can a drought impact our mental health? As a hydrology PhD researcher who studies droughts, the Mental Health Awareness week was the perfect opportunity to explore how my own subject connects to mental health.
As water is so essential to life itself, it may come as no surprise that our wellbeing connects to the presence and absence of water in a myriad of ways. However, compared to the benefits of green spaces, water’s relationship with our mental health has received relatively little attention, although there seems to be an increasing interest in scientific literature in the possible value of blue spaces for mental health. For example, a recent study spanning 18 countries was able to link more frequent visits to inland blue spaces to greater wellbeing. They also suggest that people suffering from anxiety turn to the calming waters of lakes and rivers to help cope, as taking medication for anxiety was associated with more voluntary visits to blue spaces.
The green-blue space surrounding the Wensum has definitely been beneficial for some environmental PhD students during the pandemic! Left: one of my “little lockdown mental health walk” paths. Right: happily kayaking Beth and Callum.
What, then, about those times when the blue becomes scarce and green spaces turn yellow? This turns out to be a challenging question to answer, and more research is needed on the short- and long-term mental health impacts of drought. Most of the literature I encountered on this topic focused on Australia, for a very tragic reason. Extreme, prolonged drought in recent decades in this country has been associated with suicide in specific demographic groups, including male farmers. Some of the suggested factors contributing to this are reduced income, increased workload, lack of control over their farming success, traditional gender roles, and a general overwhelming sense of powerlessness. In India, suicide has been linked to both extremely wet and extremely dry growing seasons. Globally speaking, drought has been linked globally to shame, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, loss and grief, powerlessness, as well as suicide. These consequences cast a dark shadow over my preliminary graphs and maps depicting simulated meteorological drought increases in a changing climate.
The greatest drought-associated mental health impacts are felt by communities who are most dependent on water, for example for their livelihoods or cultural identities. Drought mostly impacts people’s mental health through intermediary mechanisms, such as crop failure or migration, rather than direct household water shortages. Drought-triggered unemployment and income reductions can lead to loss of not only economic but also social status. Another suggested mechanism through which droughts cause emotional distress is a loss of connection to emotionally valuable places, through forced migration or by watching the degradation of landscapes to which people feel attached (solastalgia). The duration of a drought also plays an important role in the level of distress experienced by at-risk communities: extremely long sustained periods of drought can become especially challenging.
In the UK, charitable organisations like the Farming Community Network and RABI offer support to help farmers manage stress and uncertainty stemming from drought and other sources, such as the pandemic. This year, RABI has conducted an ambitious survey on the health and wellbeing of farming people in England and Wales, which has yielded over 15000 responses (still being analysed at the time of writing).
Lastly, let’s return to this year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week: nature’s wellbeing benefits. Narratives collected in the UK as part of the “Drought Risk and You” project demonstrate how drought can affect people’s emotionally meaningful interactions with nature positively or negatively. On one hand, dry weather can encourage people to get out and about and appreciate the natural environment. Dry weather can provide ideal conditions to spend more time exercising and relaxing at the beach or in coastal waters. On the other hand, drought can put a temporary halt to outdoors activities beneficial to people’s mental (and physical) health. Low water levels in rivers and lakes can make kayaking or sailing less accessible or impossible. The combined hazard of drought and heatwaves can also reduce access to the outdoors, especially for vulnerable groups such as older people, and ecosystems experiencing drought stress could potentially reduce the mental health benefits of green spaces. Not being able to water gardens during temporary water use bans can be distressing as well, because of emotional attachments to gardens, and gardening being an important activity and way of connecting to nature for many.
The ways in which experiencing drought affects mental health in the short and long term are clearly incredibly variable, complex and dependent on a range of socio-economic factors. We do know, however, that droughts can a pose significant risk to people’s mental health, especially when livelihoods and other central elements to people’s lives are threatened. And despite remaining uncertainty of the effects of climate change on the nature of future drought events in different regions of the world, we do expect increasing intensity and frequency of drought conditions, including in the UK. That means that a person born today can expect to experience more frequent and intense drought conditions during their lifetime than someone of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.
How badly droughts will impact the mental wellbeing of today’s newborn farmer will depend on one hand on how successful we are in mitigating climate change, and on the other hand on our efforts to adapt and build drought resilience. After all this, I realise that the latter should include resilience to its mental health impacts.