Maverick Citizen


Finding common ground to tackle climate and mental health

Finding common ground to tackle climate and mental health
Siyabulela Kimbili says that living circumstances in Witsands make it hard to ‘think straight’, let alone worry about climate change. Young people often resort to drinking as there is a sense of hopelessness given the high unemployment in the area. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Links between environmental disasters and mental health are increasingly coming into focus as ticking time bombs. It is vital that spatial planning strategies at local government level are adapted with this dual threat to societal welfare in mind.


Marcela Guerrero Casas is a Programme Lead at the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership.

As the climate crisis becomes more evident every day, a silent, parallel catastrophe is emerging. Seemingly invisible, yet both on a deadly increase, climate change risks and mental health conditions are inextricably linked. There is growing evidence that extreme weather events cause mental trauma, anxiety and depression, that higher temperatures, rising sea levels and drought lead to mass displacement and violence, and that more people, particularly the young, feel hopeless about the future. Could public spaces be used to raise awareness about these issues and trigger collective action? 

In South Africa, the link between climate change and mental health is a relatively nascent field of work, yet it is attracting much attention given the compounded effect it has on already vulnerable people, including the young. A recent report authored by Garret Barnwell and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) makes a compelling case for urgent action by reminding us that “climate change has the potential to deepen the wounds of historical injustices”. 

witsands climate crisis

While residents of Witsands and nearby Atlantis battle high levels of unemployment, lack of housing and crime, the growing environmental challenges are less visible: soil degradation, industrial dumping and water pollution. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Gabriel Klaasen, a youth leader from the African Climate Alliance, speaks about mental health from personal experience; he recalls the many times his peers have called him in distress at all hours of the day and night. He has offered to be a sounding board for his colleagues, but says: “I’m not a psychologist, and we lack the tools and the support to deal with this growing sense of hopelessness.”

Klaasen points to the lack of public spaces, particularly in poorer communities for people to “engage in certain conversations”. Public space, he says, is not just about space but also about people. “We need access to a diverse group of people to communicate our climate demands and to break down taboos around mental health.”

Dr John Parker, a psychiatrist at Lentegeur Hospital and founding member of the Spring Foundation, believes that “the commons” are a critical part of the answer in tackling climate change and its impact on mental health. Through public projects and spaces, we can learn to share, compromise, and find a place to respond to both crises as a collective, he says. “There is no one single formula in how to use those spaces; whether they are used for play, growing things; what matters is that we learn to look after those spaces differently.”

green economy

Qhamani Mbunge says there are many challenges in the Atlantis area; but that promoting the green economy can create jobs and help prevent environmental degradation and pollution. Public spaces, she says, would encourage community dialogue/awareness. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Here are some ideas of what that could look like in our cities:

Green spaces

Science author Leonie Joubert cites the multiple benefits of creating green spaces in the city: “natural spaces serve as green airbags to help absorb the shock of heatwaves, storms, droughts, ‘fire weather’, and tidal surges; but they also serve as mental health airbags as access to nature is crucial for emotional wellbeing.”

Creating safe green spaces is also critical to help curb the indirect impact of climate change in our communities. Professor Hanna-Andrea Rother from the Division of Environmental Health at UCT’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine talks about the proven correlation between heat increases and violence. This should be raising alarms in cities like Cape Town where violence is already pervasive. Communities without spaces that serve as cooling centres will continue to face this risk. Furthermore, such communities will consistently lack access to spaces that can help to restore and heal mental health.

Integrated knowledge

While South Africa is following, albeit slowly, the global push to bring environmental health closer into academic curricula, the topic of climate change is not yet well integrated into either mental health training or health curricula more broadly. Barnwell’s report is a step in that direction, but further investigation that brings together academics in the built environment with those in health and climate would lay the ground for holistic planning and practical solutions for a city like Cape Town.

public spaces

There are very few public spaces in Witsands for people to interact safely and those available for play and sport have hardly any greening. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Conscious experiments

If Covid is a wake-up call, then some of the interventions that took place in public spaces could shine a light on what could help us prepare for the climate crisis. As Glen Tyler from highlights, moving chairs around the park won’t solve anything; nevertheless, there are small experiments that can help us to think differently about how to use, design and share our space. 

Creating zero-emission zones, car-free spaces, more shaded areas, cooling centres accessible across the city and urban gardens are some of the interventions that have worked in other places and which Cape Town’s climate change action plan includes. The trick is to do it in a truly collaborative way so that longevity and ownership are guaranteed.

Interactive programmes

Public spaces only really come alive when they are used, and this often requires some type of activity. Raising awareness about these issues can be done using information tables or displays, or can follow more creative delivery methods such as performance art, spontaneous counselling (as a group of grandmothers in Harare famously started doing by using park benches in Zimbabwe’s capital), or the well-known climate cafes where people gather to safely express fears and uncertainties about our climate and ecological crisis.


Amid all the cement and corrugated iron, residents in the Joyce Bangene informal settlement find ways to green their homes. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Taking part in such events can be constructive and beneficial to our mental health as it can focus our energy on something that gives us meaning. Sarah Birch from the Western Cape government says our expectations of the world are indeed falling apart, but part of the problem is the apocalyptic way that climate change issues are communicated with the public.

“People are not being enabled to see a different, more positive future. Things are going to change, but can we help them change into something better?” she says. Birch describes the increased anxiety and distress around the climate crisis as a “sane response to the world”. The challenge, she says, is creating spaces and tools to support people and for coordinated action from the private and public sectors. 

Yet while we compile the tools to combat our eco-anxiety, it is important to remember our collective action must tackle the root of the problem, not just the symptoms. As Dr Parker suggests, “our societies have evolved to be less egalitarian, less communal and more masculine; to combat the climate and mental health crisis, we need to reorganise society.” 


Decorative plants mingle with vegetables in this resident’s garden in Joyce Bangene informal settlement. ‘We can’t talk about the environment and climate change if people are hungry,’ says Ellen Fischat of the Atlantis Special Economic Zone. ‘But the first step is understanding that they have resources and can participate meaningfully.’ (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Public space can be a vital tool in redirecting that process, as long as history and awareness of existing injustices and unintended consequences guide the work. For this to happen, partnerships and genuine collaboration between the private and public sectors is paramount. 

With this in mind, the EDP and the City of Cape Town will host a public discussion on 12 November as part of its Futurecasting series on the link between climate change and mental health in the city’s resilience strategy and climate action plan. Tune in. DM/MC

This work was supported by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa.


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