There is no doubt that the consequences of climate change are now playing out in real time across Australia. While rigorous research has taught us a tremendous amount about the physical risks of climate change, far less attention has been paid to the impact of climate change on our mental health and the fabric of our communities.
This new national study has deepened our understanding of the impacts of climate change on mental health in Australia and provided an opportunity to hear from those on the front line of the climate crisis about how to better prepare for and respond to future disasters.
Their stories are presented here.
Over 500 Australians completed our community survey.
We asked strangers to read out some of the responses.
A mother from Northern NSW whose family is still reeling from the impact of floods.
“I don’t know how we can do this again.”
“Our middle child has a diagnosis of ASD-Level 2 and Anxiety. The storm and its aftermath significantly heightened his anxiety to the point of meltdowns, sleep disruptions and a stress reaction to any rain events.
“We’ve learnt lessons from 2022, but I don’t know how we can move things early, or get access to extra resources.”
A mother from Kallista, Victoria, who was impacted by the extreme weather events of June 2021.
“In June 2021 whilst in lockdown we experienced a severe storm that felled 25,000 trees, we were then without phone, internet and power for almost two weeks. During this time I felt extreme fear however I have a tendency to disassociate and remained in shock for the months to follow. I then went on to seek mental health support through my GP and am now seeing a psychologist. Since this time we have had more storms, landslides and floods. We have decided to move, reluctantly, however we are aware this may not keep us safe from events they will just be different.”
“I am hyper aware now of the changing climate and worry about the future my child will live in.
“I am also very connected to my local community and we are doing all I can to look out for each other. I feel more connected locally however I am aware that Government is relatively inert when it comes to being prepared for weather events and disasters.”
A resident of Lismore NSW, Parent to a 13-year-old son on the autism spectrum
“The 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. I was a renter, my landlord was unable to claim his flood insurance due to damages exceeding the amount he was insured for ($320k). We are currently staying at a friend’s place, in their shed, right on the river on the floodplain. We have nowhere else to go, like so many of us. We are forced to live where it isn’t safe because there isn’t affordable housing!”
Susan Conroy experienced the 2021 Lismore floods. Her home became uninhabitable due to flood damages
A resident of Broulee who experienced bushfires
“Recalling that time, hearing helicopters, seeing and smelling smoke, and driving past ruined bushland can still occasionally bring me to tears. Having our house, and seeing many others, restored and seeing the return of much of nature has helped to lessen the impact.”
A Melbourne resident with a brother who struggled to access mental health support during the Black Summer Bushfires in Victoria.
“We need a massive shift from the government who continues to subsidise fossil fuels. We need urgent changes to federal and state laws to ensure robust biodiversity plans are in place to help heal country. Each event builds on the next and life is clinging round the edges… We need a massive increase in funding for mental health services. We need to stop all fossil fuels, that includes gas, and stop fracking everywhere before we destroy the Artesian Basin, the Pilliga. We need to engage with, fund and support First Nation tribes to help them heal country and to listen, and follow the scientific community’s advice urgently.
“We need the federal and state governments to massively ramp up investment in planning cities and regional areas knowing 1 in 1000-year floods can now happen in an area twice in a month. We need much more robust post emergency funding and infrastructure. We still have people living in caravans from the Black Summer Bushfires. We need to do so much and there is no more time to waste. Every action matters and we need it all immediately. We should have a solid plan to get to net zero by 2030.”
A Lismore, NSW resident who experienced the 2017 and 2022 floods
“I experience PTSD, depression and anxiety particularly when it rains. This has been the case since a life-threatening experience in the 2017 floods where I was trapped in my North Lismore home, and has been exacerbated every flood since then up to the February 2022 floods.
“My son’s rental was flooded to the ceiling. He resigned from his job two months after the disaster. He and his partner have had to move back in with his mother. They haven’t found accommodation, nor been able to work.”
A Rural Fire Service Volunteer from Moruya, NSW
“It was six weeks of smoke inhalation whilst protecting my own and neighbours’ properties, and working as an RFS volunteer. This required relocating to Sydney, away from farm and smoke, to convalesce severely inflamed lungs. Prior to the fires, I experienced drought (decided to de-stock property of my small herd of cattle) followed by flood (trapped by flooded creeks and unable to return home for a week….slept in the car).”
“Smoke smells trigger slight anxiety, especially if they are unexpected.”
Judith and Paul lost their home to a bushfire in Buxton, NSW
A Brisbane resident who experienced floods
“We physically bailed for 2 days to keep the water out of the house, which was exhausting both physically and mentally and we still lost the battle. That’s when the despair hit.”
A parent from Gumeracha, SA who experienced bushfires
“At the time, my children were under 18, and felt devastated about the loss of habitat and other impacts on our native wildlife as we were caring for many animals injured during the bushfires.”
A resident from Tweed Heads, NSW who has survived multiple bushfires and floods
“I feared the unknown – How far were the waters going to rise? What were we going to do? How close were the bushfires going to get? How could I get my asthma under control? How was our community going to recover after so many major catastrophes? We have already had several major floods and bushfires and the government’s response has been pathetic.”
“The SES doesn’t have enough boats or equipment, we don’t have enough trained volunteers, people have been living in tents for months, and we know this is going to happen again. People risked their lives saving the lives of others, where is the support for them? What’s going to happen next time?”
Elly Bird, City Councillor and Director of Resilient Lismore
While recent years have seen greater acceptance of the need to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and a number of new policies and funding announcements from different levels of government, far more needs to be done to adequately prepare for the challenges ahead.
Australia should have a clear national framework for adaptation and resilience that puts communities first and ensures greater coordination among different agencies and levels of government. It should have action plans that are grounded in local needs, priorities and strengths while being adequately resourced by Federal and State Governments. It must be underpinned by the best available science and a localised understanding of climate risks. Overall, it demands prioritising investment in resilience, recognising that at present far more is spent on disaster recovery than on building our resilience to disasters.
The Climate Council proposes the development of a single integrated National Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Resilience Strategy. This would ensure greater coordination and coherence of efforts and avoid duplication. It could form the basis for ambitious action plans to suit different contexts. A unified strategy should include deadlines for implementation and a five-yearly process of review and strengthening. As detailed in the recommendations below, it would require adequate resourcing and build on an improved understanding of local climate risks.
The Climate Council acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we live, meet and work. We wish to pay our respects to Elders past and present and recognise the continuous connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to land, water and Country.