The survey of 2032 Australians by the Climate Council with support from Beyond Blue found half those contacted had been “detrimentally” affected, while one in five reported a major or moderate impact from the natural disaster they experienced.
Eighty per cent of respondents said they had experienced at least once since 2019 heatwaves (63%), flooding (47%), bushfires (42%), droughts (36%), cyclones or destructive storms (29%) or landslides (8%).
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 health support available to them.
More than half (51%) of Australians surveyed said they were “very (25%) or fairly worried (26%)” about climate change and extreme weather events in Australia.
Beyond Blue’s lead clinical advisor Associate Professor Grant Blashki said it was clear that climate change was 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,” he said.
“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.”
The survey’s findings mirror long-held concerns by doctors that our medical systems remain woefully ill-prepared for the increased health burden that will come from elevated temperatures and more extreme weather patterns due to climate change.
As previously reported by InQueensland, people in rural areas are generally more exposed to changes in climate and natural disasters, while also being at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing medical support.
The survey results back what doctors are observing and reporting anecdotally.
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%).
And 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%).
Australian National University climate scientist and author Dr Joelle Gergis said the survey was highlighting an “invisible mental health crisis” that was undermining the stability of local communities throughout Australia.
“We need to have a national conversation about climate change adaptation and listen to the experiences of people who have lived through these disasters,” Gergis said.
“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.”
“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.”
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