Sunderbans: A number of environmental threats including that of climate change and man-animal conflict are driving villagers in Sunderbans islands towards madness and even suicide. Putting stress on the mental health of the villagers, the ill-effects of abject poverty and deprivation in the remote islands of the UNESCO World Heritage site are compounded by acute struggle against ecological hazards, experts say.
Psychiatrist Arabinda N Chowdhury, who worked with the Institute of Psychiatry in Kolkata, studied how eco-stress is affecting the mental health in Sunderbans, famed for its large mangrove forests and the Royal Bengal tiger. Findings from mental health clinics reveal that patients
reported mental problems like major depressive disorder (14.6 per cent), followed by somatoform pain disorder (14 per cent ), post traumatic stress disorder (animal attack related) and adjustment disorder.
Around 11.2 per cent of the cases had history of attempt to suicide, of which 55 per cent used pesticides to kill themselves. Causing loss of land, sea levels in the Sunderbans area have been rising at an alarming rate of 3.14 mm per year due to global warming. Two islands have already disappeared under water while almost all the 54 inhabited islands are reported to be shrinking due to erosion.
Climatic shocks in the form of cyclonic storms and floods breach the banks, inundate the localities, render people homeless and damage the fertility of agricultural land. Besides the salinity level in the rivers and creeks surrounding the islands has also increased in the last few
years making agriculture and fishing all the more difficult.
Prof Barun Kanjilal of The Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) says under the given circumstances mental health problems threaten to be one of the most critical public health issues in the Sunderbans. "People here are living under continuous stress due to various environmental challenges and frequent climatic shocks like storms or cyclones. It is because of a complex set of psycho-social stress creators which are closely linked to the gripping livelihood challenges in the region and may trigger a pandemic of mental health problems," he warns.
In villages adjacent to the reserved forest areas, where communities depend on fishing and collecting forest products, people are especially unsecured against attacks from tigers, sharks and crocodiles.
Chittapriyo Sadhu, project manager of international NGO Save the Children, says women are the most vulnerable as they have to handle household chores, children and even work in the fields. A study conducted on the clinical records of patients admitted for attempted suicide to six government hospitals in the Sunderbans found that women accounted for 65 per cent of such cases.
An absence of mental health clinics in the region is aggravating the problem as people opt for 'ojhas' to ward off evil spirits whenever anyone reports falling mental health.