Climate Change and its Impact on Women’s Mental Health
The right to health in Argentina and to its protection are constitutionally enshrined, as implicitly acknowledged in article 33 and explicitly in article 75, section 22, of our National Constitution, which grants human rights treaties constitutional hierarchy. Accordingly, it can be inferred that in our country the right to health is protected by the Constitution as a fundamental human right beyond the distinction between public and private law as it permeates the entire legal system.
Likewise, the right of every citizen to live in a healthy environment that is suitable for human development is constitutionally acknowledged, thereby establishing the State's duty to protect "environmental health".
It must be noted that the environment - or rather the disregard for it- and climate change can have a negative impact on the general and mental health of the population, particularly that of women, who are the most affected by their adverse effects, since the consequences - such as fires, floods, droughts, etc. - generate vulnerability. Women are in charge of activities like the search for food or drinking water wherever that needs to be done, which increases gender inequality.
When talking about mental health, both mental well-being and emotional resilience are to be considered. Therefore, the loss of mental well-being is mainly related to the violation of the right to live in a clean environment, for the physical and mental health of people living in highly polluted environments (environmental conflict zones) is affected due to the enormous uncertainty of inhabiting such a hostile environment. (Karla Yohannessen 2020). As an invisible factor, the fear of the effects of climate change gradually undermines citizens' mental health.
The relationship between a healthy environment and mental health has clearly become visible especially with the pandemic and the mobility restrictions of the last two years, as we all felt the need to be able to walk in public spaces and, above all, to be in touch with nature, the beach, the sun, etc. In many cases, it became evident that this lack of contact with the environment had a negative impact on the mental health of many of our citizens.
Along this line, it has been stated that "Not much is said about the connection between mental health and living in a clean environment, but it is becoming very clear that the degradation in terms of nature of the place we inhabit is associated with emotional issues that can lead to anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders in people" (Sapiains Rodolfo 2020).
It is imperative to give serious thought to the consequences of climate change and this requires education, awareness-raising and the creation of legal frameworks, institutions, and an environment that allows for sustainable, long-lasting and informed decisions. This has been called "climate literacy", a condition to understand the dangers we face.
Poor mental health is also associated with severe climate changes caused by human beings as well as stressful working conditions, unhealthy lifestyles and a poor diet, all of which are psychological factors that make people more vulnerable to problems of violence and hostility and thus have a negative impact in our country.
We believe that we must promote the appreciation of biodiversity and the environment, and raise awareness of the care it requires, not only on the part of authorities and companies, but also of the entire community involved in these spaces. For this reason, addressing this binomial of mental and environmental health calls for a public health perspective, which must necessarily lead us to devise adequate public policies to guarantee their protection, giving due intervention in their design to women, who are ultimately those who, when faced with catastrophes, are on the front line to mitigate their impact (as could be seen in the pandemic or in the great floods, etc.).
As climate change and natural disasters are threatening the future of humanity more than ever before, the time has come for women to be heard, as their relationship with the environment and their awareness of the management of natural resources are an invaluable treasure to be discovered. However, the acknowledgement of their potential contribution to the survival and development of the planet is still limited as women have been mostly confined to their role as caretakers of their families and providers of food, water, etc.
Gender inequality and social exclusion continue to aggravate the negative impacts of unsustainable and destructive environmental management on women and girls, who bear the brunt of the negative consequences, thus exacerbating their vulnerability: greater mortality, food insecurity, violence, etc.
According to the UN, their participation in decision-making processes, as well as the inclusion of a gender perspective in climate and environmental policies, is instrumental to effective climate action. This is why, despite the obstacles, governments are increasingly drawing on their expertise and leadership when making important environmental decisions, such as community action for risk prevention.
To conclude, we need to ensure a gender perspective in environmental policies in order to contribute to a healthier environment that would also be beneficial to the mental health of the population, especially women.
Claudia Zalazar is a member of the 5th Civil and Commercial Court of Córdoba, Argentina, member of AMJA- Association of Women Judges of Argentina, and President of the Right to Health Section of the Institute for Research in Legal Sciences of the Universidad Blas Pascal.