Australians are 3 times more worried about climate change than COVID. A mental health crisis is looming


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Rhonda Garad, Monash University; Joanne Enticott, Monash University, and Rebecca Patrick, Deakin UniversityAs we write this article, the Delta strain of COVID-19 is reminding the world the pandemic is far from over, with millions of Australians in lockdown and infection rates outpacing a global vaccination effort.

In the northern hemisphere, record breaking temperatures in the form of heat domes recently caused uncontrollable “firebombs”, while unprecedented floods disrupted millions of people. Hundreds of lives have been lost due to heat stress, drownings and fire.

The twin catastrophic threats of climate change and a pandemic have created an “epoch of incredulity”. It’s not surprising many Australians are struggling to cope.

During the pandemic’s first wave in 2020, we collected nationwide data from 5,483 adults across Australia on how climate change affects their mental health. In our new paper, we found that while Australians are concerned about COVID-19, they were almost three times more concerned about climate change.

That Australians are very worried about climate change is not a new finding. But our study goes further, warning of an impending epidemic of mental health related disorders such as eco-anxiety, climate disaster-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and future-orientated despair.

Which Australians are most worried?

We asked Australians to compare their concerns about climate change, COVID, retirement, health, ageing and employment, using a four-point scale (responses ranging from “not a problem” to “very much a problem”).

A high level of concern about climate change was reported across the whole population regardless of gender, age, or residential location (city or rural, disadvantaged or affluent areas). Women, young adults, the well-off, and those in their middle years (aged 35 to 54) showed the highest levels of concern about climate change.




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The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


The latter group (aged 35 to 54) may be particularly worried because they are, or plan to become, parents and may be concerned about the future for their children.

The high level of concern among young Australians (aged 18 to 34) is not surprising, as they’re inheriting the greatest existential crisis faced by any generation. This age group have shown their concern through numerous campaigns such as the School Strike 4 Climate, and several successful litigations.

Of the people we surveyed in more affluent groups, 78% reported a high level of worry. But climate change was still very much a problem for those outside this group (42%) when compared to COVID-related worry (27%).

We also found many of those who directly experienced a climate-related disaster — bushfires, floods, extreme heat waves — reported symptoms consistent with PTSD. This includes recurrent memories of the trauma event, feeling on guard, easily startled and nightmares.

Others reported significant pre-trauma and eco-anxiety symptoms. These include recurrent nightmares about future trauma, poor concentration, insomnia, tearfulness, despair and relationship and work difficulties.

Overall, we found the inevitability of climate threats limit Australians’ ability to feel optimistic about their future, more so than their anxieties about COVID.

How are people managing their climate worry?

Our research also provides insights into what people are doing to manage their mental health in the face of the impending threat of climate change.

Rather than seeking professional mental health support such as counsellors or psychologists, many Australians said they were self-prescribing their own remedies, such as being in natural environments (67%) and taking positive climate action (83%), where possible.

Many said they strengthen their resilience through individual action (such as limiting their plastic use), joining community action (such as volunteering), or joining advocacy efforts to influence policy and raise awareness.




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Indeed, our research from earlier this year showed environmental volunteering has mental health benefits, such as improving connection to place and learning more about the environment.

It’s both ironic and understandable Australians want to be in natural environments to lessen their climate-related anxiety. Events such as the mega fires of 2019 and 2020 may be renewing Australians’ understanding and appreciation of nature’s value in enhancing the quality of their lives. There is now ample research showing green spaces improve psychological well-being.

Walking in nature can improve your mental well-being.
Sebastian Pichler/Unsplash

An impending epidemic

Our research illuminates the profound, growing mental health burden on Australians.

As the global temperature rises and climate-related disasters escalate in frequency and severity, this mental health burden will likely worsen. More people will suffer symptoms of PTSD, eco-anxiety, and more.




Read more:
New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


Of great concern is that people are not seeking professional mental health care to cope with climate change concern. Rather, they are finding their own solutions. The lack of effective climate change policy and action from the Australian government is also likely adding to the collective despair.

As Harriet Ingle and Michael Mikulewicz — a neuropsychologist and a human geographer from the UK — wrote in their 2020 paper:

For many, the ominous reality of climate change results in feelings of powerlessness to improve the situation, leaving them with an unresolved sense of loss, helplessness, and frustration.

It is imperative public health responses addressing climate change at the individual, community, and policy levels, are put into place. Governments need to respond to the health sector’s calls for effective climate related responses, to prevent a looming mental health crisis.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Rhonda Garad, Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow in Knowledge Translation, Monash University; Joanne Enticott, Senior Research Fellow, Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation (MCHRI), Monash University, and Rebecca Patrick, Director, Sustainable Health Network, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires can make kids scared and anxious: here are 5 steps to help them cope


Toni Noble, Australian Catholic University

More than 600 schools have been closed, and some damaged, in recent days as bushfires rage across Queensland and New South Wales. Some students have been urgently evacuated while in school. People have lost homes and animals and are experiencing significant distress.

Research shows somewhere between 7% and 45% of children suffer depression after experiencing a natural disaster. Children more at risk of depression include those who were trapped during the event; experienced injury, fear, or bereavement; witnessed injury or death; and had poor social support.

The Victorian Education Department commissioned us after the 2009 Black Saturday fires to train teachers in seven fire-affected regions in methods to foster resilience in children.




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Teachers told us their students had experienced distressing emotions including high anxiety, fear and even panic during the event. Comments from teachers included:

Their world had changed forever; they became more fearful.

Some children were very frightened and for a long time stayed close to their parents.

Many children became scared and anxious about worldwide issues.

Their anxiety was triggered by the smell of smoke, a fire engine’s siren or a foggy day.

The teachers we interviewed also noted children’s profound sense of loss (of their homes, pets and livestock). Many students knew someone who had lost a family member or friend.

One teacher said:

The fires opened students’ eyes to what a disaster is. Not just something you see on TV.

We trained teachers using our Bounce Back program – a research-based social and emotional learning program first published in 2003. Most children are resilient and will bounce back quickly. Only a small minority may be at risk of ongoing anxiety and there are ways to minimise that risk.

How to help kids cope now

Try to stay calm and reassuring. Children take cues from the adults in their lives. If adults show fear and nervousness, children tend to mirror these emotions.

Try to focus on the small positives such as “we are all safe”. You can list the things that haven’t changed, such as your children’s friends. Reassure them other people such as family, friends, teachers and their community will help and that life will return to normal.

Everyone feels sad, anxious or upset when a bushfire burns near their home. By helping your child name their feeling, you are helping them feel more in control. Here are five steps to encourage your children to do this:

  1. take notice when your child is feeling sad, frightened, angry or upset
  2. encourage your child to talk about what’s troubling them, and listen and show you understand how they are feeling
  3. name the emotion in words your child can understand – are they “worried”, “scared”, “a bit frightened” or “sad”?
  4. help your child understand it’s normal to feel that strong emotion and help them to sit with their feelings
  5. finish with a hopeful or optimistic statement they can do something to help make things feel better. This may include something physical (such as going for a walk or throwing a basketball through a hoop), something that creates positive feelings (like playing with a pet or friend, or drawing), or doing something kind or helpful for someone else.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after hardship.

To help your child bounce back, you can communicate that:

  • life is mainly good but now and then everyone has a difficult or unhappy time
  • although things aren’t good now and it might take a while to improve, it’s important to stay hopeful and expect things to get better
  • you will feel better and have more ideas about what to do if you talk to someone you trust about what’s worrying or upsetting you
  • unhelpful thinking (“our family will never get a nice home again”) isn’t necessarily true and makes you feel worse
  • helpful thinking (“it might take a while to get our home back again but it will happen”) makes you feel better because it is more accurate and helps you work out what to do.



Read more:
Ignoring young people’s climate change fears is a recipe for anxiety


Coping after the event

Children with strong emotional support, such as from family and friends, are better able to cope with adversity.

Friendships may be disrupted after bushfires because of family relocations. Helping children connect via social media or phone with friends can reduce their sense of isolation.

Getting children back to school and regular routines can be one of the best ways to help their resilience.

Teachers are encouraged to allow time for children to talk about the bushfires and their feelings about them during class.

The teachers who participated in the Bounce Back program after Black Saturday explicitly taught children the skills for being optimistic and resilient – such as to challenge their unhelpful thinking and understand everybody, not just you, experiences setbacks sometimes.

They also taught kids skills for regulating their emotions and everyday courage to face their fears.

They used circle-time discussions of picture books and media stories to allow them to talk about their own experiences in a safe way.




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‘It’s real to them, so adults should listen’: what children want you to know to help them feel safe


We held focus groups with children of different ages in five of the primary schools that used our Bounce Back program. The children told us they: “know now what to do when something goes wrong”; “focus on more positives”; “don’t think the worst now”; “know things change”; “have learnt that sometimes you just have to put up with it”; and “now feel it’s easier to get back up in bad times”.

While a disaster can be challenging for children, a supportive home and school environment, together with coping skills, can help children recover reasonably quickly and get back to normal life.The Conversation

Toni Noble, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Positive Psychology & Education, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.