By Hyacinthe Niyitegeka
08 / 03 / 2023
Hyacinthe Niyitegeka speaks during a COP 27 side event about the important role that the youth play in addressing loss and damage. Image credit: Loss and Damage Collaboration © 2022

What drains us mentally?

We work in a sector where the majority of the news we hear and read is about what has been lost and damaged as a result of climate change, and this news is always negative, causing one to rethink how and why this keeps happening to humanity. The news we receive includes the deaths of people we know and do not know, the destruction of infrastructures such as hospitals, schools and roads, the displacement of millions of people due to the destruction of their homes, and the famine in many parts of the world, as well as other physical and mental sufferings. These climate crisis effects are classified as economic and non-economic loss and damage (NELD) and result from both extreme weather events and slow onset climatic processes. Hearing that a significant number of our fellow humans, particularly those in the global South, are afflicted by loss and damage can impact our mental health and definitely affects on our well-being as individuals and as a community at large.

In addition to everything we hear about the climate crisis, to which the most affected communities have contributed the least, we must also deal with a multitude of other issues in our daily lives, which can leave us mentally exhausted. I believe that this sentiment is shared by a large number of people. Among the recurring issues we face include; 

1. Making both large and small decisions throughout each day, both of which I find extremely challenging. Decision-making begins with what to wear today, what to eat, what work to prioritise, and our career choices. It becomes more challenging when deciding how to advocate more effectively for communities on the frontlines of climate change around the world and how to help them obtain the support (finance, capacity building, and technical assistance) they need to address loss and damage. 

2. Our living conditions are frequently on our minds and can occasionally be a cause for anxiety. Some of us live a demanding lifestyle, focusing heavily on our careers during the working day, and our weekends are rarely quiet and relaxing. This leaves us with little time to maintain our physical and mental health.

3.We must also allocate time and care to our families and friends, as it is essential to surround ourselves with  people who can provide us with both support and companionship in both happy and sorrowful times.  With so much going on in our lives, we frequently find ourselves emotionally drained and feeling as if everything is collapsing, making it difficult to discover what can help us.

Keeping mentally strong everyday

Whilst loss and damage from climate change impacts has now become a part of our daily lives particularly in the global South, the manifestation of loss and damage calls to all of us to take the issue critically and figure out how to address it as quickly as possible. Many researchers are focusing their efforts on determining the best way to address all forms of loss and damage. This was reflected in the Loss and Damage Collaboration's recent brief on mapping loss and damage activities being conducted by various actors; the main goal was to know who is doing what and when with the aim of avoiding the duplication of work and aligning efforts. One of key gaps highlighted in the study is that we are "insufficiently addressing loss and damage in all its forms and must take into account both economic and non-economic losses and damages whilst considering both extreme weather events and slow onset climatic processes” and it was recommended that this gap needs to be filled collaboratively by all Loss and Damage actors. This demonstrates that we must work even harder to find sustainable solutions to address loss and damage urgently. To do so more effectively, we must be mentally resilient in the face of all life changes and obstacles, viewing them as an opportunity to rise above and emerge much stronger than before. 

In her article titled "How to Be Mentally Strong: 14 Ways to Build Mental Toughness," Michelle Ribeiro explains that a mentally tough person views challenges and adversity as an opportunity rather than a threat and has the confidence and a positive outlook to handle whatever comes their way. She continued to emphasise what she termed the "four C's of Mental Toughness," including ‘commitment’ on the list of what makes our minds resilient. In our daily work, we have set the noble objective of achieving climate justice, which requires us to ensure that we have the capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the effects of climate change, as well as implement policies to avoid and minimise these effects by always taking into account the most vulnerable communities, thereby reducing future loss and damage. If we remain committed to our big goal, it will improve our mental strength over time and assist us in the development of more efficient methods. In her article, “6 Habits That Will Help You Build Mental Strength”, Ladan Nikravan Hayes explains that having a strong mind enables us to deal with all of the challenges we face on a daily basis and to remain calm in stressful situations. 

Our daily actions build our mental strength

Building mental strength is the key to reaching our full potential, regardless of one’s goals. Small daily actions and habits strengthen us and keep us moving forward in achieving our goals and staying healthy in all aspects of our lives. Among the many actions we must practise are:

1. Self-care is one of the habits that contribute to the development of a robust mind, as is establishing and adhering to time and task limits. As recommended by scientists, the best ways to take care of our mental and physical health include eating healthy food, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular physical activity. I am well aware that there are times when we have urgent work and matters that need prompt attention, but when this is not the case, we must prioritise self-care.

2. We can choose to celebrate our small wins and accomplishments; doing so gives us hope that our efforts will not be in vain. After thirty years of the topic of Loss and Damage finance being overlooked in United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations (UNFCCC), the Loss and Damage Fund was established at COP 27. Most colleagues from civil society organisations viewed this as a "win" that resulted from their collective efforts of pressure and unity among developing countries. Yes, if we view this small victory as a step in the right direction towards our larger collective objective, it will give us the mental strength and courage to stay the course. 

3. Being kind - on our journey through life, we must be kind, wherever we are, to everyone, and to ourselves whenever possible. This is one of the invaluable lessons I have learned through coaching and mentoring calls with my fantastic team, the New Generation. However, being considerate and concerned about others does not invalidate the need for mental fortitude

4. We must also keep in mind that happiness is powerful; we should practise being happy even when we have few reasons to do so. We can choose to engage in exercises that will assist us in learning to control our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour regardless of our circumstances. 

A few habits to cultivate in order to maintain mental strength

In conclusion, since our work is very important and will affect a large number of people around the world, we should: 

Create an environment that builds mental strength around us through collaboration with others, which will allow us to increase productivity while reducing stress; 

Be resilient and mentally strong in order to complete our daily tasks, serve our communities, families, and, most importantly, ourselves;

Try to find some time alone with no interruptions to read your favourite books, watch TV, or attend your favourite show - whatever it is, ensure that it is something that allows you to rest your mind and body.

Also know that developing mental strength does not occur overnight; it is the result of daily practice of healthy habits.

Finally, these are just a few tips for staying mentally strong in our daily important work of finding all sustainable solutions to address all forms of loss and damage. I believe that we all experience varying degrees of mental distress, with some experiencing more than others, but we must use these setbacks to strengthen our mental resilience. In this way, we will remain committed to advocating for the most marginalised communities impacted by the climate crisis and preserving our precious environment. 

Hyacinthe Niyitegeka is a water scientist and member of the New Generation of young negotiators from developing countries. She coordinates the Loss and Damage Collaboration and works on various advocacy activities with the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition, which she co-founded, as well as The Green Protector, a youth-led NGO from Rwanda. She believes in the power and important role of youth in addressing the loss and damage caused by climate change.