SEPTEMBER 25 — As millions of lives are disrupted and even destroyed by haze originating from forests burned intentionally in South-east Asia (SEA) — in particular Indonesia and Malaysia, what often gets missed is the mental wellbeing of individuals and nations.

The blackened out sky and the acid air in such eco-terrorism attacks can quite often lead to various psychological challenges that include low mood, depression, lowered motivation, increased anxiety, low tolerance to daily stressors, tiredness, irritability and psychological distress resulting from medical conditions triggered by the haze (e.g. asthma, migraine).

As the grey winters dawns each year, some of the symptoms are similar to those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in countries that experience cold winters.

The psychological and medical losses for individuals, businesses and societies in the region are substantial. Haze inhalation filled with carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde, acrolein and benzene — some of which have carcinogenic effects – have been attributed to over 100,000 deaths in 2015 alone.

Researchers calculated that Malaysia spent US$98 million (RM409 million) on haze-related illnesses in 2013 (Manan et al, 2018). According to the World Bank the economic cost to Indonesia is also very high, at US$16.1 billion — more than twice the reconstruction cost of the 2004 tsunami. Aljazeera reported that Singapore fared no better, with a loss of US$510 million in 2015.

With this grave fear, governments such as in Malaysia have ordered schools closed each time the API readings go above 200. The latest closure resulted in over two million children having to stay at home. The stress placed on families in coping with such closure has a multiplying effect.

Children sitting for year-end exams worry about missing classes. Many also feel imprisoned, struggling with their pent-up energy within the four walls of their home, rather than being able to channel them in school, in playgrounds, and outdoor activities.

Two million families in Malaysia have to figure out alternative childcare, with many having to miss work. Parents suffer from anxiety as they worry if their employers will understand and show compassion.

One parent shared with me how she suffers anxiety attacks of being fired from her job every time her child’s school closes due to hazardous API readings above 200. “I have no one to look after my kid during school time, as he is supposed to be in school. So I have to stay home. I just hope my company can understand.”

Businesses are impacted with lower work performance from employees, impacting productivity and services. Travelling to and from work on our highways — most of which are already clogged — expose motorists to sensory information that dulls the senses (i.e. the greyed sky), while heightening stress of being trapped in smoke chambers.

There is no escape. And as this goes on for days, employees reach their offices and homes zapped of energy spent in travelling.

Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels (leading to depression), disrupt melatonin (which can affect sleep and our mood) and impact our body circadian rhythm.

Top this up with the acidic smell of the air, and the lack of oxygen that we are breathing in — all of which can lead to us feeling uncomfortable both psychologically and physically, and a sense of helplessness.

Mental health professionals worry about their clients with pre-existing psychological conditions such as Bipolar, Anxiety Disorders and PTSD who are at higher-risk during the grey winters.

In the extreme, our bodies go into fight or flight mode. And in behavioral psychology we see the effects of learned helplessness on animals tested in research facilities.

As of January 2019, more than 42,000 hectares of forest and plantation land in Indonesia have been burning. If all the fires were intentionally started for agriculture, it saves plantation owners andfarmers a whooping US$8.2 million. It would cost US$8.4 million to clear the land using machines and chemicals (US$5 per hectare), versus US$210,000 by fire (US$200,000 per hectare) (Tan, 2019).

But are the savings for the companies worth it? Is saving US$8.2 million worth it while Malaysians fork out US$410 million for their health due to the haze?

While many of us may feel like water bombing regions where the fires are burning out of control (and probably the companies causing these fires), there is more in our control than we may recognise.

All is not lost. We need not remain helpless.

Taking back control of our lives during the haze is critical for our wellbeing. Mental health interventions during extreme haze include a spectrum from lifestyle changes to seeing a mental health professional. There are three key areas in minimising the risks of psychological distress during the grey winters.

The first is in taking care of our physical wellbeing, and this includes keeping the air we breathe as clean as possible through the use of masks, staying indoors, and using an air purifier. Breathing in clean air provides sufficient oxygen to cells in our bodies, allowing us to keep up an energy level required for daily work and tasks.

Is it worth investing in a good air purifier for one’s house, car and office? The answer is a resounding yes.

The second is in what we consume: In drinking lots of water, minimising caffeine and alcohol, and eating healthy. Given that our brain and heart is 73 per cent water, our lungs are 83 per cent, and much of the rest of our body contains as much as 60 per cent or more water, staying hydrated is critical to our body’s optimal wellbeing.

Is it worth investing in a good water purifier? Again, the answer is a yes. And, to drink about two litres of water a day.

The third is in finding ways to stay positive and optimistic, and this can include exercising, doing things you enjoy such as reading a good book or watching a feel-good movie, or even a cheerful or inspirational clip on YouTube.

Any activity that reverses the impact of the haze on our neurotransmitters is worth investing in (as long as it is not criminal or destructive, wink).

Finally, coping with the psychological distress of the haze requires reaching out to others — be it friends, or professionals, and be it via social gatherings or healthy online media. For those of us who internalising the effects of the haze, or where the haze adds to our negative thoughts, it is easy enough to snuggle under the covers and remain there.

But activities that connects us to people — be it our siblings, our children, our friends, our co-workers , or professional counselors — help in multiple ways from realising we are not alone in our experiences to enjoying the company of others in feel-good activities.

Much of these have influence our psychological state of being to help us feel positive about ourselves, and to feel a sense of hope and the ability to make a difference in the face of adversity.

While companies at the heart of the burning forests continue to plunder for profits, the key for the survival of humans and animals alike are in the resilience of each species. The mental resilience of our human species attest itself in its will to not only survive, but to thrive.

We are smart enough to do the math and realise that the losses of the fires outweigh the profits. We will not remain helpless.

While putting an end to this yearly crime against humanity, while mobilising our governments for sterner action, we must act accordingly to keep our mental wellbeing in check, and to invest in individual and social efforts to raise the mental health standards of our nations.

Our souls will not burn with the ashes, but rise to the winds of change for a better tomorrow.

* Brendan J. Gomez is a Fulbright Scholar, applied psychologist and senior lecturer at HELP University

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.