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El Nino and its effects on Gen Zs’ mental health

by Joanna Deala AND Gaby Agbulos

THE dry season is strongly being felt in the Philippines, and Filipinos have once again been advised to take precautionary measures to prevent any health risks associated with the climate condition. 

This has been the scenario in the country every year since state weather forecasters declared the onset of the dry season. But for 2024, efforts to remind the public to protect themselves against heat-related illnesses were doubled as heat indexes in several parts of the country hit “danger” and “extreme danger” levels.

The extreme heat the Philippines has been experiencing in the past weeks led to the subsequent suspension of face-to-face classes and the implementation of blended learning in several schools.

Workers, particularly those reporting on-site, are also affected by increasing temperatures, prompting the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to call on employers to consider implementing flexible work arrangements.

The months of March, April, and May are typically the hottest periods in the country, but Filipinos have been experiencing scorching weather this year, which has been intensified by El Niño. 

How El Niño occurs

El Niño is defined as a climate phenomenon characterized by the periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is one of the three phases of a larger climate pattern called El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), according to Krishna Santos, a meteorologist and a PhD student at the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

In frame: Krishna Santos

“ENSO is a bigger climate activity [on] Earth wherein we also look into the relationship of the sea surface temperature and how it changes with the atmosphere. So, this is a recurring natural phenomenon as described by the World Meteorological Organization,” Santos told republicasia.

According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), El Niño occurs in the Pacific basin every two to nine years and it usually starts during Northern winter, from December to February.

During El Niño, or the warm phase of ENSO, sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean become unusually warm. Santos said that this disrupts normal atmospheric circulation patterns, resulting in changes in global weather patterns.

This climate phenomenon may have various adverse impacts on the environment, including increased rainfall and flooding, drought conditions, warmer and drier conditions, and disruption of marine ecosystems in several parts of the globe. 

Santos also noted that there are also countries that are worst affected by El Niño, including Peru, Ecuador, Indonesia, Australia, and India. The Philippines, she said, is also not an exception.

“India [was] recorded before na sila yung pinaka naapektuhan dahil massive droughts talaga ang nangyari for the whole country,” said the meteorologist.

“Then some areas, we can say like in the Philippines also, we can also count it since almost million yung nasisirang hectares here in the Philippines. And marami ring naapektuhan na mga farmers, in such cases, yung kita rin nila,” she continued.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) reported that El Niño already caused P4.3 billion worth of agricultural damage, affecting 85,232 farmers and fisherfolk in 11 regions in the country. It also noted that a total of 77,731 hectares of agricultural land have been devastated by the climate phenomenon.

Dangers of El Niño

Looking back at history, Santos noted that one of the most powerful El Niño events happened from 1997 to 1998, which led to massive flooding, droughts, and other natural disasters across the globe, including the Philippines.

“Nagkaroon ng big effect [yung El Niño] in our country during 1997 and 1998, wherein severe droughts talaga yung nangyari in most parts [of] the Philippines,” she said.

But how dangerous El Niño can be, specifically in a tropical country like the Philippines?

According to Santos, the climate phenomenon may lead to a shortage of food and water, the two most fundamental needs for life.

“There are reports na during the dry season or during El Niño, we experience yung [pag]-lessen nung tubig sa dam, yung water na nakukuha mula sa mga balon. In that case, dangerous na siya kaagad to the public health kasi water is one of the main na need ng mga tao,” said Santos.

She continued, “Additionally, pagdating sa food, nagkakaroon tayo ng scarcity. So ‘pag nagka-scarcity, kulang yung production ng food, magkakaroon din ng kakulangan ng income yung mga farmers natin.”

Santos said that El Niño may harm fisheries and marine ecosystems. It may also result in wildfire and air quality issues, heat waves, and health risks. 

A previous republicasia report listed down several health risks associated with the dry season, with heatstroke being considered as the “most serious” heat-related illness.

“Lately, nabalita yung heat wave. So yung heat wave, isa siya sa sinasabi natin na consecutive days of having a high temperature. [Compared] with the normal na temperatures we gathered during the dry conditions, mas mataas siya kumpara doon,” she explained.

“Mas maraming nagkakaroon ng heatstroke and yung mga taong may sakit sa puso is hindi rin sila gaanong comfortable enough na lumabas due to the heat causing them exhaustion,” she added.

But PAGASA told Dobol B TV that while Filipinos are experiencing extreme heat, this does not mean that there is already a heat wave in the Philippines.

Impact on mental health

The unbearable heat has also taken a toll on a number of people: workers, students, and everyone under the sun (literally). A report from the International Labor Organization (ILO) explained that the intense heat, exacerbated by El Niño, may lead to stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicide. 

Here, ILO found that 2.4 billion out of 3.4 billion in the global workforce were exposed to excessive heat at work every year, a 35 percent increase since 2000. It noted that the extreme heat could affect the employees’ work-related decisions.

In frame: Psychologist AJ Sunglao

Psychologist AJ Sunglao told republicasia that the intersection of mental health and the climate crisis has been growing over the past years. He noted the higher levels of suicide risk and heightened irritability among individuals amid extreme heat, especially El Niño.

“Individuals with existing conditions are also at the worst risk for worst mental health outcomes. All of these things just get worse the worse heat gets, especially in the Philippines where infrastructure and support isn’t really there,” Sunglao stressed.

“While we’re used to heat, we’re not used to this level of heat. So, it’s really hard for an ordinary Filipino to be able to cope and manage, especially on a day-to-day basis,” he added.

But while there have been reports of increased suicide rates in other parts of the globe due to the extreme heat associated with El Niño, Sunglao emphasized that the Philippines don’t have similar reports yet but he said that the country is “seeing signs already.”

“Other countries that are also experiencing El Niño are showing similar reports, so it’s expected that we might see something similar. Our data might not reflect that yet kasi nga wala pa tayo dun. We’re only starting to really intersect these two sectors: the extreme heat and climate crisis and mental health,” he said.

Sunglao did not also rule out the possibility of heightened levels of anxiety and depression. 

When we experience extreme heat, the psychologist said that our bodies are working harder to cool themselves down and that we may experience breathing difficulty, which could increase anxiety, particularly among those with pre-existing conditions.

High temperatures also affect one’s productivity. Sunglao noted that people might just choose to cancel or change plans instead of going out in this scorching heat.

In frame: Sunshine Loriega

Learning to adjust

Among those who are facing challenges in dealing with the extreme heat are students Christian Paulino and Sunshine Loriega, who have been adversely affected by El Niño physically and mentally. 

Loriega, for example, suffers from a skin condition that’s been worsening due to the current heat. She would often get breakouts and would suffer from red, flaky skin. Later on, she started to develop butterfly rashes on her face, too. 

She’s noticed that her reactions have been getting more severe as the temperature started to rise. As a result, she’s had to change her entire routine just to accommodate her condition, often staying in her dorm room or only going out at night. 

Whenever she has to go out in direct sunlight, she has to bring an umbrella, jacket, and cap with her, lest she wants to risk breaking out even more. 

Her friends constantly ask her to go out with them, but she’s often forced to offer her dorm as a hangout place to avoid her condition from flaring up. Since all of this has started, she’s noticed a deterioration in terms of her confidence and mental health. 

When she goes out, she often feels anxious, worrying about what people think about how she looks. She struggles to focus in school as well.

Paulino is facing the same struggles. Studying at the Lyceum University of the Philippines (LPU) in Intramuros, he has to deal with the blistering heat every time he leaves his building.

“It’s kinda taking a toll on me, lalo na’t yung class ko is from 8:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night,” he shared.

“Yung ibang rooms kasi, kailangan pa lumipat ng ibang building; konting lakad mo lang, kulang na lang, ma-heatstroke ka na. Madalas sumasakit na talaga yung ulo ko.”

What’s worse is he has to spend at least an hour commuting just to get to school on time. As someone who relies on jeepneys as his mode of transportation, he explained that getting a ride has recently been a bit of a struggle, too. 

“[Dahil] nagkakaroon ng issues with our traditional jeeps ngayon, nahihirapan talaga ako sumakay kasi [ang] kokonti talaga,” he said in reference to the ongoing transport strikes. 

He shared that while there are fewer jeepneys on the streets, the amount of passengers remains the same, so he and several others have to cram themselves into what little jeepneys are left just so they can get to where they need to go. 

Often, Paulino has to resort to looking for other forms of transportation instead. 

As a result of the heat, he gets headaches often and sweats profusely throughout the day. His performance at school has also taken a hit, as he no longer performs up to the standard that he’s used to. 

He explained, “With this heat, nakakatanggal talaga ng motivation. And with that, bumabababa yung performance ko, so it takes a toll din talaga sa mental health ko.” 

Paulino also has several responsibilities at home such as driving his dad to his dialysis treatments and bringing his sibling to and from work from Pasig to Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig.

“Hinahatid ko siya gamit motor, [at] nagiging problem with this heat; wala namang airconditioning so sobrang init talaga, [at] dumadagdag [din] yung usok sa traffic whenever we travel,” he shared.

He added that he’s grown anxious and stressed as a result of the heat, especially since they don’t use the air conditioner at home. Even with electric fans surrounding them, it does little to alleviate how they feel. If anything, it worsens it.

“Lumaki talaga yung hirap kasi kahit malamig naman, kahit ‘di naman dry season dito, mainit pa rin naman talaga,” he stated.

“So with this high heat index, lalong humirap. Dumoble yung pagod. Nagi-istruggle ka na nga at this level, bigla pang tumaas lalo, so it really affects you physically and mentally.” 

In frame: Christian Paulino

No escape 

Even if you’re not in Manila, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. Many other parts of the country have also been reported to have extremely high heat indexes, such as certain cities in Cagayan, Pangasinan, Zambales, and Palawan. 

Loriega, who goes home to Puerto Princesa, finds that she still has to adjust her routine there given that it feels even hotter there than it does in the metro. Whatever her routine is in Manila, she has to be even more careful in Palawan as it affects her condition even more. 

“Nakakadagdag siya sa fatigue ko since madali ako migraine-in, [and the] migraine, yung cause din po niya is photo sensitivity,” she explained.

She’s found it harder to balance out time for self-care alongside her schooling, which has lessened her productivity, to the point that she struggles to do simple tasks without sweating and flaring up. 

In her dorm, she also doesn’t have an aircon either, and the same goes for the classrooms at her school, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP). At school, there are only two electric fans, and in many classrooms, only one of them works.

Recounting her experiences at school, she said: “Habang nagdi-discuss yung prof, yung iba inaantok na sa init, hindi makapag-focus. Hirap din po [kami sa] small space ng classroon, and dapat namin pagkasyahin yung 48 na students [doon].”

Whether it be Loriega’s experiences, Paulino’s, or anyone else’s, one thing is certain: everyone, everywhere, is struggling all the time.

How to cope up

PAGASA previously reported that El Niño in the country has started to weaken, but it warned that its effects will persist in the coming months.

Apart from droughts, Santos mentioned the possibility of wildfires and heat waves in the country.

“Yung transition niya kasi is April to June pa, so ang expected na matatapos is May pa talaga, so medyo matagal-tagal pa siya and since magko-coincide pa ‘yon sa other weather parameters and weather experiences na mangyayari sa’tin such as yung pag-blow ng easterlies,” she said.

She continued, “Mararamdaman at mararamdaman pa rin natin yung init na nararamdaman natin as of now.”

As we continue to deal with the extreme heat, Sunglao offered advice on how to cope with El Niño, specifically for their mental health:

  • Keep hydrated. This has been one of the most important tips to the public to stay healthy during the dry season, aside from minimizing exposure during peak heat.
  • Express your emotions. Conveying your emotions, particularly frustrations, may help you deal with high temperatures, especially since we couldn’t help but feel irritated during the dry season.
  • Have a health check. It is also vital to closely monitor one’s health, especially if they have an existing health condition because they are the ones who are at a higher risk for mental and physical issues.
  • Manage your focus. For students and employees, finding a space where they feel comfortable–either in their home or another establishment–will help them manage their focus on their studies or work.

A need to do better

While Loriega and Paulino both acknowledged that the government’s currently taking steps to help alleviate the effects of the heat–such as the suspension of face-to-face classes and the assurance that public hospitals are ready to deal with the effects of El Niño–there is still so much more that they could do.

One suggestion Loriega offered was bringing back the old schedule for classes, wherein school would start in June and end in March. 

“Dahil din sa init during April [kaya] mas nagte-take toll siya sa mental and physical health ng person–hindi lang sa students, pa rin sa mga prof.”

She added that a bigger budget should also be given to public schools, as many of their facilities at present are unable to cater to the large number of students in each classroom. Paulino stated that adding more drinking fountains around the school would also help. 

Paulino also reminded people that while suspending classes means students no longer have to commute, it’s not as if everyone has the facilities to deal with the heat at home, either.

“Kahit nasa bahay ka, it still becomes a struggle; ngayon, buong araw ka nakaupo sa isang room, nakatapat sa device mo na umiit, nakakadagdag [lang sa stress mo],” he stated.

Loriega also recommended taking action against climate change, as she noted this to be the root cause with regard to the issues surrounding the country at present. 

Greener infrastructures and planting trees would also help alleviate the heat people are facing, though their effects won’t be felt any time soon. 

Paulino hopes that both the government and private institutions will soon realize that while this temperature won’t last forever, people won’t be able to tolerate it forever, either. 

He added, “As much as they can, sana maging flexible sila, since kaya naman talaga.”

Meanwhile, Sunglao said that the government should do more than just implement ad hoc policies, highlighting that the climate crisis is not just an environmental issue. 

“That’s not responsive enough. We need governments to be able to add climate-related data as part of their census, as part of their data set, so we’re better informed,” he said.

The psychologist suggested the need to involve more professionals in the healthcare center, not just psychologists and psychiatrists, in conversations about mental health.

“Right now, [the] Psychology Association of the Philippines, the PAP, basically a national association of psychologists, has an environmental interest group already. We’re already working on this, but we’re one of the smallest so we’re really working towards building it further within our own community,” said Sunglao.

“But that’s not enough. Again, we need people outside of the mental health sector pitching in as well because we’re all affected,” he continued.

La Niña Watch raised

The Philippines is still dealing with extreme weather related to El Niño, but there may be another looming challenge on the horizon as PAGASA raised the La Niña Watch in the country last month.

This, as climate models indicated a 55 percent probability that the weather pattern will develop by June. 

La Niña, or the cool phase of ENSO, is characterized by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, said Santos. Opposite to El Niño, its impacts include increased rainfall, cooler and wetter conditions, and enhanced hurricane activity.

While there’s no official announcement about the onset of La Niña in the country yet, Santos said that Filipinos may expect normal conditions. However, she urged the public to be attentive to La Niña alerts that PAGASA will release.

“Once we receive that, magkakaroon tayo ng extreme na mga rains, heavy precipitations for some time,” said Santos.

“For now, stay hydrated pa rin as usual. Hindi dahil nag-weaken na si El Niño is hindi na tayo iinom ng maraming tubig, hindi na tayo magpapayong sa labas. Still, there will be a hot temperature pa rin since nasa dry conditions pa rin tayo,” she advised.



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