Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘climate emergency’ as the 2019 word of the year, following a hundred-fold increase in its usage. Another term that made the shortlist but not the cut was ‘eco-anxiety’, which is defined as a feeling of chronic helplessness, depression, fear, fatalism, and resignation to the impending environmental catastrophe.
Unlike the documented mental health fallout of disasters such as droughts, floods and earthquakes, which lead to panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder and increased suicide ideation and suicides – such as among farmers during sustained drought – chronic stress and despair from less extreme events like air pollution is less recognised despite becoming a visible affliction in many developing countries, such as India and China.
“The chronic effect of eco-anxiety is not as visible as acute ecological emergencies like earthquakes and droughts, but they are documented to affect mental health, leading to fear, anger, frustration, despair, guilt and exhaustion from feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and inability to make a difference,” says director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Hospitals, Samir Parikh, who is getting an increasing number of children and parents across his centres in north India with air pollution-related anxieties.
“Parents are among the hardest hit because they worry about the planet they are leaving their children and future generations,” says Parikh.
One such parent is New Delhi-resident Komal Singh, who tracks the air quality index (AQI) in Delhi-NCR obsessively and keeps her seven-year-old daughter Shreya home from school on days it hovers close to 300, after which the air quality enters the ‘severe’ zone.
Aside from the days schools were closed during Delhi’s air emergency, Shreya has missed close to two weeks of school since October. Singh’s toddler Samvit, stays cocooned all day at home, which reverberates with the hum of half a dozen air-purifiers.
“The air is so foul, what do you do? I’ve had to stop Shreya’s tennis lessons. In other countries, schools are shut when the AQI reading touches 200 (‘poor’ category), but if I do that, my kids won’t get an education. All the other parents in her school also keep children indoors,” says Singh, 41, who is considering moving out of Delhi with her family.
Eco-anxiety is adding to childhood and teen inactivity in north India and leading to increased physical isolation, obesity and over-dependence on social media and digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, laptops and television.
Three in four 11-17 year olds are not getting the one hour of daily exercise needed, which raises their chances of developing, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems, including depression, according to a new World Health Organisation study of 1.6 million students in 146 countries.
“With rising air pollution, urbanisation and increasing access to mobile technology keeping students indoors, inactivity will increase in the coming decades, and with it, non communicable diseases (NCDs) will go up,” says director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Randeep Guleria.
Non communicable diseases, which include heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, account for 60 per cent of all deaths in India, killing more people than all infectious diseases and injuries put together.
“You have to balance things out as outdoor activities are good for children, but unhealthy air is not. When you have high levels of air pollution, outdoor physical activity should be restricted. You should wait for the sun come out and for the pollutants to rise up,” says Guleria.
The health benefits of outdoor activity are not affected by air pollution provided very vigorous exercise is avoided on bad air days, found a study from China, which is among the few places in the world with air toxicity peaks comparable with cities in Indo-Gangetic plains. It was published in the Journal of Epidemiology in September.
Another study from China published in The Journal of Paediatrics recommended schools plan and adjust the intensity of outdoor physical activity on the basis of the current air pollution levels and children be asked to stop physical activity if they start coughing, wheezing or experience chest tightness.
Children must be offered a supportive urban environment for play, including green spaces, parks and urban forests (>0.3 hectares) within a 0.5 kilometres radius, and pavements free of encroachment for walking. That, coupled with schools adopting flexible timetables to plan for unstructured activity, sport, athletics and other activities on clean air days and keep indoor study for days when air quality deteriorates, will help children get the physical activity they need to stay healthy. (HT Media)