Climate disasters having profound impact on mental health

Matt Woodley

25/01/2023 5:08:18 PM

Half of the respondents to a new poll say their mental health has been detrimentally affected by an extreme weather event.

Man surveying his burnt out property.
Eight in 10 survey respondents had experienced at least one natural disaster since 2019. (Image: AAP)

A poll of more than 2000 Australians has revealed more frequent and intense disasters are having an increasingly devastating impact on the mental health of Australians.
Conducted by the Climate Council and supported by Beyond Blue, the survey found that since 2019, the majority (80%) had experienced, at least once, heatwaves (63%), flooding (47%), bushfires (42%), droughts (36%), cyclones or destructive storms (29%) or landslides (8%).
Half of the poll’s respondents also said their mental health had been detrimentally affected by an extreme weather event, with one in five reporting that it has had a ‘major or moderate impact’.  
Australian National University climate scientist Dr Joelle Gergis describes the results as ‘confronting’.
‘It’s heartbreaking to realise that many Australians are living with significant levels of distress related to the reality of our changing climate,’ he said.
‘It shines a light on … [the] mental health crisis that is undermining the stability of our local communities all over the country.’
Dr Kate Wylie, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Climate and Environmental Medicine, told newsGP the ‘important’ research adds to an existing body of knowledge showing that Australians are being affected by climate change ‘now’. 
‘The mental health impacts of climate are becoming increasingly obvious, and it is a rare day that I do not hear about a patient’s climate concerns at work,’ she said.
‘People of all ages talk to me about their climate anxiety and eco-grief, but young people in particular are suffering and need our support. 
‘Climate anxiety is a rational response to a real threat and it requires GPs – and indeed all health professionals – to be climate aware and climate active if we are to address the health needs of our patients.’ 
A follow-up community-level survey of people who had experienced a disaster found the most common mental health symptoms were anxiety, followed by symptoms of depression and PTSD.
More than one-third of survey participants (37%) also said there was too little mental health support available to them. 
Dr Wylie says rural communities have been hit hardest by the climate crisis and they often find it hardest to access support for their health needs. 
‘We are all aware how difficult it is to access mental health services across Australia, but this is especially difficult in the bush,’ she said.
‘That these communities are those most likely to have experienced a climate-induced event underlines how vital it is that governments support people’s health needs by supporting rural general practice.
‘GPs provide high-quality, patient-centred care. We are the first port of call for mental health and this report reinforces the need for our governments to support general practice.’
According to Dr Gergis, it is time for a ‘national conversation’ about climate change adaptation and for people in power to listen to the experiences of people who have lived through these disasters.
‘Extreme weather events are going to escalate as our planet continues to warm, so the impacts we have witnessed in recent years are really just the tip of the iceberg,’ he said.
‘We urgently need to develop plans that protect and support our local communities as climate change-fuelled disasters continue to upend the lives of countless Australians.’
Meanwhile, Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Advisor Associate Professor Grant Blashki believes a ‘whole system approach’ to climate change is required, rather than ‘piecemeal band-aid approaches during a crisis’.
‘It’s as much about broken spirits as damaged buildings,’ he said.
‘People say they have been left feeling helpless, have experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression, trouble sleeping, and have children who worry when it rains, or the wind picks up. It’s important we get on top of these issues early and get people the appropriate support at the right time.
‘By acknowledging and addressing the mental health impacts of climate change, we can build stronger and more resilient communities, better able to weather the storms – both literal and figurative – that lie ahead.’
And even though general practice is already facing a ‘myriad of challenges’ affecting the viability of clinics across the country, Dr Wylie says GPs should step up and be actively involved in helping to find solutions.
‘The GP workforce shortage, the inadequacy of the Medicare rebate and now the looming pressure of payroll tax are undermining our ability to provide healthcare and support our communities,’ she said.
‘We’ve got a lot to take on, but we cannot ignore the threat of the climate crisis which is only going to continue to grow as the planet continues to get hotter. 
‘Climate change is a health issue, and we need to treat it.’
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