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Climate change not just a physical but a mental health threat, survey finds

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A new survey shows Australians’ mental health is negatively impacted by more frequent and intense climate-related disasters.

The survey of 2,032 Australians by the Climate Council, supported by Beyond Blue, has found that since 2019, the majority (80%) reported they had experienced, at least once, heatwaves (63%), flooding (47%), bushfires (42%), droughts (36%), cyclones or destructive storms (29%) or landslides (8%).

Half of Australians said their mental health had been detrimentally affected by the extreme weather event they experienced and one in five reported a major or moderate impact.

A follow-up community-level survey with 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%) said there was too little mental healthcare support available to them.

Climate Councillor, a climate scientist at the Australian National University and author of Humanity’s Moment: a Climate Scientist’s Case for HopeDr Joelle Gergis said, “The results of this poll are confronting. It’s heartbreaking to realise that many Australians are living with significant levels of distress related to the reality of our changing climate.

“It shines a light on this invisible mental health crisis that is undermining the stability of our local communities all over the country.

“We need to have a national conversation about climate change adaptation and 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. 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,” he said.

Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Advisor A/Prof Grant Blashki – who supported the development of the mental health-related survey questions – also said, “It’s clear that climate change is not just a physical threat, but a mental health threat as well. And yet, despite the high levels of need, many people affected by climate disasters find it difficult to access the mental health assistance they need.

“We must strengthen our mental health systems to cope with the demands of these extreme weather events. This involves the whole system approach rather than piecemeal band-aid approaches during a crisis. We need to prepare the mental health system for early support of those affected, and co-opt a more diverse workforce, from local mental health first aid all the way through to highly specialised mental health care.”

“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. It’s time to put the mental well-being of our communities front and centre as we respond to the public health challenges of climate change,” he added.

Selected key findings

  • The majority (80%) of Australians reported experiencing an extreme weather event at least once since 2019, of which 63% said heatwaves, 47% flooding, 42% bushfires, 36% drought, 29% destructive storms, and 8% landslides.
  • People living in rural and regional areas are significantly more likely to have experienced flooding at least once since 2019 (61%) than people living in urban areas (38%). Similarly, country residents were more likely to have been affected by a bushfire at least once (50%) than people in urban areas (37%).
  • More than half (51%) of Australians who experienced climate-fuelled disasters since 2019 say their mental health has been somewhat impacted, of which one-in-five (21%) claim that the disaster they went through has had a “major or moderate impact” on their mental health.
  • More than half (51%) of Australians surveyed are “very (25%) or fairly worried (26%)” about climate change and extreme weather events in Australia.
  • People living in rural areas were more likely than people living in urban areas to report inadequate or unavailable mental health services in the wake of a disaster (41% versus 33%).
  • Australians who had experienced a mental health problem after a disaster were most likely to turn to their GP for help, however, many reported mental health services were quite or extremely difficult to access.

A/Prof Grant Blashki added, “We wanted to better understand people’s personal experience of disasters and undertook a separate in-depth survey of almost 500 people who had been caught up in extreme weather events since 2019.

“It’s as much about broken spirits as damaged buildings. 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,” he said.

For support please contact Beyond Blue at 1300 22 46 36 or explore Phoenix Australia’s Disaster Mental Health Hub online with some excellent resources or check in with your GP or local mental health services.

Media release from the Climate CouncilNote: Content has been edited for style and length.

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