Responding To The Mental Health Challenges Of Climate Change In Tuvalu

Responding to the mental health challenges of climate change in Tuvalu

Leaders of Pacific nations met this month in Tuvalu at the 50th Pacific Islands Forum to negotiate a response to climate change. The outcomes of their negotiations carry implications for mental health across the region.


Climate change is widely understood to be a threat to mental health globally. Its effects will be greatest among populations that are simultaneously ecologically and economically vulnerable to its impacts.


Tuvalu is a case in point. With its highest point rising just 4.6 metres above sea level, all Tuvaluan infrastructure and human settlements are coastal, placing them in easy reach of coastal erosion, cyclone damage, and storm surges. Tuvalu is also classified as a Least Developed Country, with minimal economic capacity to meet the hefty price tag required for climate change adaptation. In consequence, climate change, in combination with other social and economic challenges facing the nation, could ultimately render Tuvalu uninhabitable.


Phoenix Australia has been working in Tuvalu to trial a culturally-adaptable psychosocial program designed to support residents in the aftermath of disaster, such as cyclone. The program teaches skills to aid individual adjustment in the context of environmental change and reduce levels of distress.


This program, the Skills fOr Life Adjustment and Resilience (SOLAR) program, holds promise as a cost-effective, scalable intervention that could be delivered as needed across the Pacific Island Region – a region where formalised mental health services are few, and are likely to be increasingly overwhelmed in the context of continued exacerbation of environmental impact.


“Pilot results of SOLAR in Tuvalu appear promising. Local leaders and volunteers received training from Phoenix Australia to deliver the SOLAR program to 79 residents of the main island, Funafuti, and the outer island of Nui, where Tropical Cyclone Pam wreaked extensive damage in 2015 that is still being felt,”

said Kari Gibson, Research Fellow at Phoenix Australia.


“Across both populations, large and statistically significant reductions were seen following the program in levels of distress, post-trauma symptoms, impairment, and difficulties arising from participants’ self-identified problems. These changes were significantly greater than changes observed when participants took part in a control condition, during which they accessed community supports as per usual. Furthermore, all participants reported finding the program useful and worthy of administering again in the future,” added Kari.


In light of these positive findings, Phoenix Australia is excited about the prospect of continuing to investigate the efficacy of the SOLAR program, and making it more widely available across the region and elsewhere.