Spate of natural disasters takes a toll on Australians’ mental health, survey finds

Climate-induced extreme weather has damaged people and communities as much as buildings and land, researchers say

Four in five Australians have experienced some form of natural disaster at least once since 2019, according to polling commissioned by the Climate Council.

The nationally representative poll of 2,032 Australians, which was conducted by YouGov, also found that 51% of respondents were “very or fairly worried” about climate change and extreme weather events in Australia.

Of the 80% who reported experiencing at least one extreme weather event, the most common disasters Australians had lived through were heatwaves (63%), flooding (47%), bushfires (42%) and droughts (36%).

In the national study, which was supported by Beyond Blue, more than half of affected individuals also reported negative impacts on their mental health.

Associate Prof Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue’s lead clinical adviser, said the research reiterated that the climate crisis was “not just about physical threats – it is very much about the mental health impacts and also the emotional wellbeing of communities”.

“We need to talk not just about damaged land and buildings and infrastructure, but the broken spirits of many communities and how we can best support those communities,” he said during a press briefing.

People in rural or regional areas were more than 1.5 times as likely to have experienced flooding than people in urban areas (61% compared to 38%), and were also more likely to report inadequate or unavailable mental health services following a natural disaster (41% compared to 33%).

Queensland and New South Wales residents were the most likely to have experienced multiple disasters since 2019.

Of those polled in Queensland and NSW, more than a third in both states had experienced multiple flooding events – compared to 13% in Victoria, 5% in Western Australia and 4% in South Australia.

In addition to YouGov polling, the Climate Council carried out a follow-up survey asking people who had lived through a natural disaster about their experiences.

Symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD were common, and more than a third of these respondents reported inadequate mental health support.

John Grono and Donna Andrews, from Bundanoon in the NSW southern highlands, lost their home in January 2020 during the black summer bushfires.

“There are things that happen that no one can really help you with because they’re dealing with their own issues and grief,” Andrews said. “We didn’t know where we would sleep. We didn’t know where we could go to the bathroom.”

“I’m 67,” Grono said. “I’d only ever lived in four homes. In the last three years I’ve lived in six, and that’s a killer.”

Three years on, their house is now in the process of being rebuilt. “There are long-term effects that come from these things – both of us are strong and capable people,” Andrews said. “But this is something we will be living with all our lives.”

Dr Joelle Gergis, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, said the extreme weather events of the past few years were “a real preview of what we can expect with global warming as it continues”, adding that a greater focus on adapting to the impacts of the climate crisis was needed in Australia.

“We often are talking about mitigation – so reducing carbon emissions and so forth,” she said. “But there’s a really important and invisible mental health crisis that’s going on as communities continue to be displaced.”

Gergis called for more coordinated planning to protect and support disaster-hit areas. “We’re literally talking about the very fabric of our communities starting to be stressed in ways that become quite unmanageable,” she said.

“The black summer bushfires of 2019-20, the catastrophic flooding of the east coast of Australia … if we’re witnessing these sorts of impacts at just 1.2C of warming then you can imagine, with higher levels of warming, what sorts of things will start to play out.”


Donna Lu

The GuardianTramp

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