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New research linking climate variability and mental distress among India’s rural poor wades into a hotly debated topic

Outdoor work in the summer leads to heat stress (Photo by Nevil Javeri)

Climate variability affects the psychological well-being of adults, especially the rural poor, reports new research on India, rekindling the debate over the complex interplay of factors that could trigger mental distress in people affected by a changing climate.

The research, published in the journal World Development, concludes that hot weather in the prior year worsens psychological well-being of Indian adults; temperature shocks in the agricultural season increase depressive symptoms; and the negative effects are found in rural, but not urban, residents.

The report points out that climate variability has been shown to have adverse effects on illnesses and deaths, but “less is known about its effects on psychological well-being, especially in developing countries with agriculture-based economies.” Poor mental health has been linked with low productivity and high healthcare expenditures and is a “serious concern” in India and many developing countries, it says.

The researchers, led by Magda Tsaneva from Clark University, US, tested whether extreme temperature and precipitation in India impacted self-reported depression symptoms, cognitive and sleep difficulties, and ability to cope with and control life. The researchers analysed changes in weather over time and in different locations; and found that hot weather in the previous year worsens psychological well being among rural adults in India.

Too hot to handle

The researchers also examined potential mechanisms that led to mental distress and found that it “is largely driven by hot temperatures during the agricultural season and could be partly attributed to a reduction in agricultural production.” According to them, there is “suggestive evidence” that the effects of weather shocks could be mitigated with poverty reduction programmes such as India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that ensures employment to all rural households for 100 days in a year.

The report points out that the adverse impacts of climate change on rural, agriculture-based economies such as India are likely to increase over time.

Given that nearly half of the global population lives in rural areas and is vulnerable to climate variability, understanding the effects of climate on psychological well-being and identifying potential resolutions is critical for insuring vulnerable populations and breaking the poverty cycle, the report adds.

Tsaneva says her team used data on mental health from 2003 and 2007 and thus could only examine short-run effects of climate for that period. “That is why we prefer to use climate variability and not climate change,” she told “While it is possible that we get similar effects over the longer-term, we don’t want to speculate about that because the effects may be mitigated if people adapt.” As example, she says that new heat-tolerant crop varieties developed could be a mitigating factor.

Contested research

The latest research adds to a previous — and hotly contested in India — study by Tamma Carleton from the department of Agricultural & Resource Economics at University of California, Berkeley, and published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). It reported that “warming temperature trends over the last three decades have already been responsible for over 59,000 suicides throughout India,” and these accounted for 6.8% of the total upward trend in suicides in the country. See: Scientists slam study linking farmer suicides with climate change

The Carleton study, however, used aggregate data at the state level to examine the effect of temperatures on suicides, while the new research “is the first formal study linking climate variability and mental health using individual-level data,” says Tsaneva.

Vikram Patel, Pershing Square Professor of Global Health and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow, Harvard Medical School, told that “what is well-established is that social determinants such as uncertainty of livelihoods and displacement, both of which are likely to be greatly exaggerated by climate change, are major contributors to stress which, in turn, is a trigger for mental health problems and self-harm.”

But Patel believes that much of the cause of farmer suicides in India is related to the uncertainties inherent in the profession, which have been worsened by globalisation of food markets and easy access to lethal methods of suicide. “This is why farmers are a high risk group in all countries and have been so for decades,” he says. “Climate change will, obviously, make their livelihoods even more precarious and thus ultimately affect their mental health adversely.”

Patel also points out that the urban poor are equally vulnerable, more so as “the numbers of urban poor will surge as people are displaced from rural areas due to loss of livelihoods, in particular due to climate change affecting agricultural prospects.”

Saudamini Das of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, contested the PNAS findings in a letter to the journal. Das says: “While there is certainly a loss in yield due to extreme weather conditions, the magnitude of loss is not huge enough to trigger suicidal tendencies.”

Das’s January 2018 letter to PNAS also said: “Studies estimating the impact of climatic variables on Indian agriculture show high temperature to reduce yield by less than 5%, and such loss is not likely to warrant suicidal tendencies.”

“Crop loss is identified as a cause of farmers’ suicides in India, but these are nearly total crop losses,” she pointed out. In fact, agricultural insurance schemes in India “do not even include high temperature/heat waves as an agricultural hazard as the crop losses from heat are relatively less substantial,” her letter said.

Das had also questioned the definition of warm days used by western studies. For example, she says, a threshold of 20 degrees Celsius (or 15 to 25 degrees Celsius) used by Carleton to define warmer days “is meaningless” in the context of a tropical country like India, where a heat wave day is declared if temperature goes beyond 40-42 degrees. So, in an Indian context, a temperature around 20 degrees Celsius is pleasant weather and unlikely to induce any extreme decision like suicide.

Work time losses

Das, who had conducted a survey on the economic burden of heat waves — whose frequency is projected to rise with warming — on the urban poor in Odisha from 2013-14, also disagrees that mental health problems triggered by climate variability is limited to rural areas. Reporting the survey findings in Climate Economics in 2015, Das had shown that urban poor workers suffer work time losses during extreme heat events, which in turn results in income losses.

The survey showed that workers work 1.19 hours less and spend 0.46 hours less at home, and they rest 1.65 hours longer on average on a heat wave day than on a normal summer day. Stresses due to income losses can impact their mental health, she says.

Tsnaeva says that poor mental health has been associated with low labour force participation and high healthcare utilisation, “and may pose a substantial burden on households creating cycles of poverty.”

“Given the increasingly erratic weather patterns caused by climate change, understanding the effects of climate on psychological well-being and identifying potential resolutions is critical for insuring vulnerable populations,” she told

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