The ground beneath her feet

Photo Source: Dhaka Tribune

Understanding depression among women in disaster prone areas

When it comes to a natural disaster, the loss of property and livelihood are ultimately monetary issues that can be overcome. But how do you deal with the trauma that often comes in response to experiencing such world altering events? Such impacts cannot be dealt with solely with money.

While previous studies have examined the health impacts of cyclones and other natural disasters in Bangladesh, very few studies have looked into people’s state of mental health. Fewer still have investigated depression many people face after experiencing such a cyclone.

Although it remains at taboo in Bangladeshi society — according to the American Psychiatric Association — depression is a seriously illness that “negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act.”

The World Health Organization reports that more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression and that it can cause or emerge from a plethora of physical illnesses. Moreover, more women globally suffer from depression than men.

Increasingly, studies show that changes in the climate and the subsequent disruption to social, economic, and environmental determinants of health may result in increased depression and other psychological problems.

To understand the relationship women have with depression in coastal Bangladesh, I decided to write my Master’s thesis on the experiences of women living in Dalbanga South, a village in coastal Bangladesh in Barisal Division.

Dalbanga South village is situated in between two rivers, Biskkhali and Paira. Normally during the monsoon, the village is struck by tropical cyclones. There are about 200 families living in the village: 60% of them is male and 40% is female. Occupations vary, although most are farmers, fishers, day labourers, carpenters and shopkeepers.

Meteorological records show that Dalbanga faces floods, cyclone, storm surges, and river erosion almost every year. For example, both cyclone Sidr in 2007 and cyclone Aila in 2009, as well as cyclone Mora in 2017 directly or indirectly hit the village.

To conduct the study, face-to-face interviews were used using the Patient Health Questionnaire (specifically PHQ-9) developed by an American pharmaceutical conglomerate, Pfizer Inc. Respondents with a score between 0-9 were categorized as having no depression and respondents scoring 10 and above were categorized as depressed.

Depression tends to significantly affect younger women, when other factors such as education, numbers of children, employment, etc. are controlled. My findings showed similar results with the prevalence of depression being highest among the young age group of women, much higher than women from other age groups.

Photos: Courtesy from Dhaka tribune

Women who reported to have not been working were found to be more depressed (84%) compared to those working (58%). Reasons for not working include a lack of employment opportunities, injuries they may have suffered, social obligations to take care of family in their households, or due to the underlying depression itself.

One of my respondents explained how she obtained a skin disease after being affected by water brought in-land by cyclone Sidr. She finally went to the Barguna Sardar Hospital when she realized that the skin disease was not going away. While she did not feel like she had a happy life before the cyclone, it was much worse after. For the last 10 years, she has suffered from not only this skin disease, but from depression and is no longer productive. She tried everything she could to recover, but nothing worked including placing coal tar on her skin. She ended by confiding she did not want to have this disease until the day she died.

Similarly, another respondent from the village is the only the woman there who earns Tk 10, 000 a month from offering private tuition. However, even she does not want to stay in the village much longer, even though this is where she is from. She is attempting to save enough money so that she will be able to move. When asked why, she responds she cannot sleep anymore on rainy night. On rainy nights, she has flashbacks to cyclone Sidr and wants to escape.

Depression rates among women living in disaster prone areas are very high and different from the national prevalence rates. Special attention should be given to younger women living in disaster prone areas. As such, disaster risk reductions efforts should not only account for the physical damages caused by natural disasters, but also from the psychological damages.

Originally this article was published on July 19, 2018 at Climate-Tribune (Dhaka Tribune). The author Zinat Fatima Papia is a research officer at ICCCAD.