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Climate change accelerates substance abuse globally



Climate change accelerates substance abuse globally

Climate change is changing weather patterns and disrupting the balance of nature, posing risks to every other form of life on earth.

But for those in substance use prevention, the big question is what the effects of climate change portend to efforts to slow down or even, albeit almost impossible, eliminate the drug menace. 

The emotional toll of global warming and its impact on addiction is such that weather disasters cause panic and displacement of people from their homes and communities.

Associated trauma may end up in anxiety disorders and drug abuse. Particularly vulnerable are the extreme ages —the very young or elderly. Also at high risk are individuals with pre-existing psychiatric problems and those lacking monetary and supportive resources.

Mental health disorders and drug use are closely interlinked and climate change is driving a combination of direct and indirect stressors. These are in the form of increased floods, humidity, heat, drought and rainfall, among others.

They are ultimately associated with self-harm and suicidal behaviours, increased hospital psychiatric admissions, psychological distress and higher mortality rates among people with existing psychiatric disorders.

Of course, not everyone stricken by a natural disaster will have a compulsive reaction. The emotional response is varied and fluctuates over time. Science shows there will be initial relief after an occurrence and sometimes symptoms of a disorder don’t appear until triggered by an ‘anniversary’ event.

Climate change consequences

The World Health Organization (WHO) cites harm to physical health among the most broadly documented global climate change consequences.

It includes injury from extreme weather events; heat stress; extended allergy and asthma seasons; more exposure to vector-borne diseases; respiratory illnesses from air pollution; and malnutrition, dehydration and developmental stunting stemming from reduced food and water supply and quality.

Cheap alcohol

A story is told of alcoholism among men in the Indian city of Gorakhpur. Apparently cheap alcohol is easily available, resulting in high dependence cases among men. Owing to the vagaries of extreme weather conditions, including heavy flooding, the men resort to drinking more, sinking their families deeper into poverty and ultimately breaking them.

A 2020 report by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed the effect of acute and chronic weather-related stressors on harmful substance use is now well recognised. There is circumstantial evidence that individuals who are concerned about the ecological impacts of climate change may be more likely to engage in harmful substance use. 

Climate change cannot, therefore, be looked at in isolation if the glaring evidence of its contribution to substance abuse is anything to go by. It has to be integrated into the social cohesion prism and addressed as part of a system of reinforcing factors significantly undermining anti-substance use efforts.

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