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California Drought's Devastating Impact on Mental Health

California Drought's Devastating Impact on Mental Health

As part of our weeklong recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week, today we will talk about how the environment in which we live impacts our mental health. In particular, we’ll focus on the most pressing environmental crisis confronting California – the historic drought we’ve experienced over the past few years.

A couple weeks ago, The Fresno Bee published a terrific feature on how the drought is impacting mental health in East Porterville, an unincorporated community in Tulare County. The article does a great job of highlighting some of the health repercussions of the drought in a community of roughly 7,500 residents, three-quarters of whom are Latino. The main thrust of the piece, however, is about the mental health impact of the drought on this community.

“In a town whose problems already include air pollution, water contamination and poverty, the drought has spurred a growing health crisis, worsening respiratory conditions and burdening those with other illnesses.

It gets worse.

… In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies published a guide about protecting public health during a drought. The guide refers to studies in Australia and India that showed elevated levels of suicide among farmworkers living in rural areas affected by severe and extended droughts.

Among those most at risk for drought-related health effects, it says, are “people living in rural or remote areas who depend on water from private wells and small or poorly maintained municipal systems, the quality of which is more susceptible to environmental changes.”

Last fall, we held a convening in Fresno to discuss the impact of climate change on health in the Central Valley. At that event, we discussed how climate change will likely lead to more severe droughts in the future and what we’re experiencing now could be more normal. Local residents often brought up how the drought has impacted the livelihoods of many of the agricultural workers in the region. They made particular note of the added stress of uncertain employment and in many places inadequate access to clean water.

In the article, mental health professionals discussed the conditions they are seeing and what they expect in the future:

[Dr. Lananh] Nguyen, the psychologist at Sequoia Family Medical Center in Porterville, recalled one patient who is bipolar saying that watering her plants was a stress reliever and helped keep her symptoms at bay. Having to cut back on water use has been problematic.

Most people in the Porterville area show up with physical symptoms such as high blood pressure or back pain, Nguyen said. Physicians experienced at detecting anxiety refer those people to her for therapy.

“I think in the future what we’ll see is a lot more people with physical symptoms first, and those developing into mental or psychological symptoms,” she said.

Earlier this year, we returned to Fresno for a town hall meeting to gather public feedback on a draft of the California Reducing Disparities Project’s Statewide Strategic Plan to Reduce Disparities in Mental Health. At this event we heard a lot about the great work being done in the Central Valley to increase access to mental health services, particularly in more rural areas similar to East Porterville. In particular, attendees brought up community health workers and promotoras as vital for connecting residents to mental health services in these communities.

During Mental Health Awareness Week it is important to note some of the root causes for mental health inequities in our state. The story of East Porterville is important because it highlights the connection between our environment and our mental health. Most importantly, it shows that unless we work to mitigate the impact of climate change, we are going to see even more severe weather events like our current drought with even more health consequences. 

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