Does it seem to you like we’re suffering a lot more “natural” disasters lately? Like climate change is starting to hit a bit too close to home? If so, you’re not imagining it. A new national study has revealed a staggering 80% of Australians have been directly impacted (ourselves or our community) by an extreme weather event just since 2019. Of these, half say it’s harmed our mental health. It makes you wonder: if it’s this full on already, how are we all going to cope with the disaster load in 10-15 years’ time; 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.
“Many Australians were used to thinking that extreme weather disasters happen to someone else,” one of the co-authors, Beyond Blue’s Dr Grant Blashki, tells me, bleakly. “This has revealed it’s a common part of the Australian experience now. Most of us have friends or family affected, if not ourselves. It’s brought it home that this is real.”
“We are living through the age of consequences from past inaction on emissions,” adds the Climate Council’s Research Director, Dr Simon Bradshaw, “and we can now see this escalation in extreme weather threats. The cost of that is being measured on our mental well-being and the fabric of our communities.”
“We are living through the age of consequences from past inaction on emissions.”Dr Simon Bradshaw
The report was commissioned because, despite decades of research on the physical threats of climate change, there’s been far less on what it really means for us. So in the one of the largest Australian studies of its kind, researchers combined the quantitative rigour of a national representative survey of 2,508 Australians, with a qualitative deep dive into the human side, by eliciting heart-wrenching testimonies and insights from nearly 500 disaster sufferers.
The numbers startled even the researchers. Of the 80% of people who’ve been through an extreme weather event since 2019, 63% experienced heatwaves, 47% flooding, 42% bushfires, 36% drought, 29% destructive storms, and 8% landslides. Queenslanders and people from NSW were the most likely to have experienced multiple disasters. And perhaps unsurprisingly, those from regional areas had seen more disasters than city dwellers; worryingly, they also found it the hardest to access mental health services.
And the personal toll is immense. I’m told some researchers had to fight back tears as they read through the raw reports from the qualitative survey.
“I literally dislocated my jaw with stress last year [clenching],” wrote one respondent from Blackheath in NSW, which was hit by the Black Summer fires. “With another dramatic summer upcoming, my body is in constant physical pain again.” Another, from the Lismore floods, wrote; “Loss of home and family pets. Almost drowned. Water rose to 2m OVER the roof of my raised home in North Lismore. My life has completely changed, my son and I are still displaced with no hope in sight for what our future will become.”
“With another dramatic summer upcoming, my body is in constant physical pain again.”Blackheath, NSW resident, after the Black Summer fires
One in five Australians who’ve recently been through 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 trouble sleeping.
While the Climate Trauma report gives us an up-to-date snapshot in time, we also now know from another extraordinary study just how long these personal impacts last.
You may have missed this report, as it was released in 2021 when – frankly – we were all distracted by ongoing disasters. It’s the culmination of multiple longitudinal studies initiated in the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires which decimated the hills communities outside Melbourne and gave us perhaps our first searing taste of what to expect from fire under global warming.
The Ten Years Beyond Bushfires Report found that three to four years post disaster, while most people had recovered, 26% still reported symptoms of a diagnosable mental health disorder – anxiety, depression, PTSD. Even ten years on it was still 22%; double unaffected communities. But what’s particularly surprising is that it was different people, according to PTSD expert and Director, Disasters and Public Health Emergencies for Phoenix Australia, Alexandra Howard.
“So maybe those people who were struggling at 3-4 years got professional help,” she says, “but then others might have thought they were doing fine, and issues emerge 5-10 years on. It just shows you need to keep a long-term eye on people.”
“It just shows you need to keep a long-term eye on people.”Alexandra Howard
Other findings included that women were slightly more likely than men to have PTSD 3-4 years on, while men were more likely to report heavy drinking. Ominously, in line with other post-disaster studies, domestic violence also increased substantially. For children, the impost on their learning could still be detected even years down the track.
So with two major studies showing us exactly how deep and long lasting the personal cost of an extreme weather disaster is, what does this mean for our future?
Australian land areas have warmed 1.47°C since 1910. According to renowned climate scientist Professor David Karoly, we are looking at another 0.6 degrees here in Australia just in the next 10-15 years. And every fraction of a degree extra supercharges extreme weather. Put simply, higher land temperatures fuel fires, higher sea temperatures fuel storms and floods. Physical challenges aside, how will our society cope with the rolling community trauma of an escalating disaster load?
Physical challenges aside, how will our society cope with the rolling community trauma of an escalating disaster load?
This is the million dollar question that in large part drove the national Climate Trauma study, and particularly concerns Blashki who, alongside his Beyond Blue advisory role, has had decades of frontline community experience as a GP.
“Nearly 40% of those who’ve experienced an extreme weather event since 2019 reported not having enough community access to mental health services,” he says. “And that’s a real message to me. What are we doing? How are we going to strengthen our services?”
“We’re going to need a lot more work to adapt to what’s coming,” expands Bradshaw. “And that includes having a mental health system that can cope with multiple extreme weather events and is fit for purpose. We need to upskill mental health professionals, but also other community members. And we need to pay particular attention to first responders, who are particularly at risk of trauma.”
Both the Climate Trauma study and the longitudinal Ten Years Beyond Bushfires Report have recommendations along those lines. But, as Blashki is quick to point out, there’s no point upscaling our mental health support capacity if we’re not also improving on the ground practical responses.
“In our qualitative research, we did ask the community what they needed and what it is clearly telling us is it’s not all about mental health support,” he says. “Strengthening the community means fixing the schools, helping businesses open, rebuilding. Fixing insurance. We need to make the recovery far easier for people; less red tape and faster. You know; ‘Don’t just send me a psychologist; send me a builder’!”
“Strengthening the community means fixing the schools, helping businesses open, rebuilding. Fixing insurance. We need to make the recovery far easier for people.”Dr Grant Blashki
The truth is, there’s no going back in time. Gone are the days of one extreme weather event every few years. We’re simply going to have to get better at everything about disasters.
Meanwhile of course, we must ensure we minimise our future disaster risk by reducing emissions as quickly as possible.
As Bradshaw sums up: “For me the key message is that action on climate change is fundamental to preserving the mental health of our people.”