We must look after our mental health in the face of climate change

  • Man sitting leaning on tree

Virtually no one in Australia has been unaffected by this summer’s natural disasters – the bushfires, smoke drifting across the major cities, and the ongoing drought conditions.

Rural communities have borne the brunt of these extreme weather events, which scientists attribute at least in part to our changing climate.

These communities already have a fair share of mental health challenges, with higher rates of suicide, especially among young people. There are also significant barriers for people living outside the major cities to access good mental health care.

Amid the plethora of physical health conditions exacerbated by bushfires, droughts and smoke, such as cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, it’s important to recognise the significant impact on mental health.

One example is post-traumatic stress disorder, which can occur in people who have been exposed to traumatic events and manifests with a variety of symptoms such as intrusive re-playing of events in the mind, nightmares, avoidance and sometimes emotional numbing.

While many people experiencing traumatic events are able to adapt and cope, for others the disasters of this summer continue to disrupt their healthy mental functioning.

In the longer term, the aftermath of natural disasters can affect people’s mental wellbeing.

Mental conditions such as depression and anxiety conditions are exacerbated by the very stressful conditions of losing loved ones, loss of livelihoods and livestock, and the devastation of many small communities around the country.

That’s not to dismiss the wonderful resilience, coping and community support that often come to the surface after disasters, and it’s been well-documented that disasters often bring out the very best in communities.

Anxiety is also felt by many working in energy, mining and associated industries who are now most anxious about their future employment and that of their children.

When they hear calls for dramatic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in this country, they wonder where they would fit if Australia were to transform to a renewable energy economy.

So, climate change in its various manifestations is impacting on the mental health of Australians and it’s important as part of a broader adaptation process that we bolster our mental health services.

This needs to occur on a backdrop of recognising the current maldistribution of mental health services which already makes access much more difficult for people in rural and remote areas.

Beyond Blue works with the Primary Health Networks to deliver the New Access program which involves practical mental health support delivered by trained mental health coaches. And there are online technologies such as telehealth and the range of online mental health treatments such as headtohealth.gov.au that are all part of the mix of services.

Beyond Blue is strongly committed to supporting those affected by the bushfires and is rolling out the Be You national education initiative, in collaboration with headspace and Early Childhood Australia.

Be You is a combination of professional learning and resources aimed at helping teachers and early learning educators to support the wellbeing of children and young people.

The initiative is currently embedded in more than 60 per cent of schools around the country, with additional Be You staff deployed to areas affected by this summer’s bushfires to support the resilience and recovery of students in those communities.

Be You is free and available online at beyou.edu.au

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