More Australians are facing climate trauma

More and more australians are facing climate trauma. What can be done about it?

Do does it seem to you that we are suffering a lot more from “natural” disasters lately? As climate change begins to hit a little Also close to the house? If so, you can’t imagine it. A new national study has found that 80% of Australians have been directly affected (either ourselves or our community) by an extreme weather event just since 2019. Of these, half say it has harmed our mental health. It makes you wonder: if it’s already this full, how are we all going to cope with the disaster load in 10 to 15 years; not just physically, but mentally?

This sobering insight into our new reality comes from a landmark report by the Climate Council and Beyond Blue: Climate Trauma: the growing toll of climate change on the mental health of Australians.

“A lot of Australians used to think that extreme weather disasters happened to someone else,” co-author Dr Grant Blashki of Beyond Blue tells me sadly. “It revealed that it’s a common part of the Australian experience now. Most of us have friends or family affected, if not ourselves. It brought home that it’s real.

“We live in an era of the emissions consequences of past inaction,” adds Climate Council research director Dr Simon Bradshaw, “and we can now see this escalation in extreme weather threats. The cost of this is measured in our mental well-being and the fabric of our communities. »

“We live in an age of the consequences of past inaction on emissions.”

Dr Simon Bradshaw

The report was commissioned because, despite decades of research into the physical threats of climate change, there has been far less on what it really means for We. So, in one of the largest Australian studies of its kind, researchers combined the quantitative rigor of a nationally representative survey of 2,508 Australians, with a deep qualitative dive into the human side, obtaining testimonials and insights heartbreaking for nearly 500 victims. .

The numbers surprised even the researchers. Of the 80% of people who have experienced an extreme weather event since 2019, 63% have experienced heat waves, 47% floods, 42% bushfires, 36% droughts, 29% destructive storms and 8% landslides. Queenslanders and New South Wales residents were the most likely to have experienced multiple disasters. And perhaps unsurprisingly, those in regional areas had seen more disasters than city dwellers; worryingly, they also have the most difficulty accessing mental health services.

An elderly person inspects the damage next to his house after the bushfires
Rick Wright inspects the damage next to his home in Nabiac, NSW after the devastating 2019 bushfires. Credit: William West/Getty

And the personal toll is immense. I have been told that some researchers had to hold back their tears when they read the raw reports of the qualitative survey.

“I literally dislocated my jaw from stress last year (clenching),” wrote one respondent from Blackheath in New South Wales, which was affected by the Black Summer fires. “With another dramatic summer ahead, my body is in constant pain again.” Another, Lismore floods, wrote; “Loss of home and pets. Almost drowned. The water rose 2m ABOVE the roof of my raised house in North Lismore. My life has completely changed, my son and I are still moved with no hope for what our future will become.

“With another dramatic summer ahead, my body is in constant pain again.”

Blackheath, NSW resident, after the Black Summer fires

One in five Australians who have recently experienced an extreme weather event say the mental health toll has been moderate to major. The most common manifestations, according to the qualitative study, are anxiety, depression, PTSD and sleep disturbances.

While the Climatic trauma report gives us an up-to-date snapshot over time, we also now know, thanks to another extraordinary study, how long these personal impacts last.

You might have missed this report, because it was released in 2021 when – frankly – we were all distracted by the ongoing disasters. It is the culmination of multiple longitudinal studies launched in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that decimated hillside communities outside Melbourne and may have given us our first startling glimpse of what to what to expect from fire under global warming.

A man paddles his kayak alongside a submerged bus on a flooded street
A man paddles his kayak alongside a submerged bus on a flooded street in the town of Milton, on the outskirts of Brisbane. February 2022. Credit: Patrick Hamilton/Getty

THE Ten years after the bushfire report found that three to four years after the disaster, while most people had recovered, 26% were still reporting symptoms of a diagnosable mental health disorder – anxiety, depression, PTSD. Even ten years later, it was still 22%; double unaffected communities. But what is particularly surprising is that it was different people, according to Alexandra Howard, PTSD specialist and director of disasters and public health emergencies for Phoenix Australia.

“So maybe those people who were struggling at 3-4 years old got professional help,” she says, “but others might have thought they were fine, and problems arise 5-10 years later. late. It just goes to show that you need to keep an eye on people for the long haul.

“It just shows that you have to keep an eye on people for the long term.”

Alexandra Howard

Other findings included that women were slightly more likely than men to have PTSD 3-4 years later, while men were more likely to report heavy drinking. Worryingly, consistent with other post-disaster studies, domestic violence has also increased dramatically. For children, the tax on their learning could still be detected even years later.

So, with two major studies showing us exactly how deep and lasting the personal cost of extreme climate catastrophe is, what does this mean for our future?

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Australian lands have warmed by 1.47°C since 1910. According to renowned climatologist Professor David Karoly, we are looking at another 0.6 degrees here in Australia in the next 10 to 15 years. And every additional fraction of a degree supercharges extreme weather conditions. Simply put, higher land temperatures fuel fires, higher sea temperatures fuel storms and floods. Physical challenges aside, how will our society cope with the ongoing community trauma of a growing disaster burden?

Physical challenges aside, how will our society cope with the ongoing community trauma of a growing disaster burden?

It’s the million-dollar question that has largely driven the national Climatic trauma study, and is particularly relevant to Blashki who, alongside his role as a Beyond Blue advisor, has decades of frontline community experience as a general practitioner.

“Nearly 40% of those who experienced an extreme weather event since 2019 reported not having sufficient access to mental health services in the community,” he says. “And that’s a real message for me. what are we doing? How will we strengthen our services?

“We’re going to need a lot more work to adapt to what’s coming,” Bradshaw said. “And that includes having a mental health system that is capable of coping with multiple extreme weather events and fit for purpose. We need to develop mental health professionals, but also other members of the community. And we need to pay particular attention to first responders, who are particularly at risk of injury. »

Two white women wearing surgical masks and taking a selfie in front of Sydney Harbor Bridge obscured by bushfire smoke
Circular Quay covered in smoke during the Black Summer bushfires in December 2019. Credit: Jenny Evans/Getty Images.

Both Climatic trauma study and the longitudinal Ten years after the bushfire report have recommendations in this direction. But, as Blashki is quick to point out, there’s no point in increasing our mental health support capacity if we don’t also improve practical responses on the ground.

“In our qualitative research, we asked the community what they needed and what they clearly tell us is that it’s not just about mental health support,” he says. “Strengthening community means fixing schools, helping businesses open, rebuilding. Fixing insurance. We need to make recovery much easier for people; less paperwork and faster. You know; “Don’t just send me a psychologist; send me a builder’!”

“Strengthening community means fixing schools, helping businesses open, rebuilding. Fixing insurance. We need to make recovery much easier for people.

Dr. Grant Blashki

The truth is that there is no going back in time. Gone are the days of an extreme weather event every few years. We’re just going to have to get better at everything disaster-related.

In the meantime, of course, we must ensure that we minimize our future disaster risk by reducing emissions as quickly as possible.

As Bradshaw summarizes: “For me, the key message is that action on climate change is fundamental to safeguarding the sanity of our people.”

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