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.

Can’t go outside? Even seeing nature on a screen can improve your mood



Damon Hall/Unsplash, CC BY

Cris Brack, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli

Are you feeling anxious or irritated during the coronavirus lockdown? Do you constantly want to get up and move? Maybe you need a moment to engage with nature.

Getting into the great outdoors is difficult at right now. But our research soon to be published in Australian Forestry shows you can improve your mood by experiencing nature indoors. This could mean placing few pot plants in the corner of your home office, or even just looking at photos of plants.

Our work adds to a compelling body of research that shows being around nature directly benefits our mental health.

Virtual images of nature have similar effects to being in the physical presence of nature.
Kishoor Nishanth/Unsplash, CC BY

Biophilia

Public gardens and parks, street verges with trees and bushes, and even rooftop gardens bring us a broad range of benefits – boosting physical health, reducing air pollution, and even lowering crime rates.




Read more:
Biodiversity and our brains: how ecology and mental health go together in our cities


But inside, in your hastily constructed home office or home school room, you may be unable to take full advantage of urban nature.

Natural products such as wooden furniture can also improve working conditions.
Noemi Macavei Katocz/Unsplash, CC BY

Embracing the notion of “biophilia” – the innate human affinity with nature – while locked down inside may improve your productivity and even your health.

The biophilia hypothesis argues modern day humans evolved from hundreds of generations of ancestors whose survival required them to study, understand and rely on nature. So a disconnection from nature today can cause significant issues for humans, such as a decline in psychological health.

In practice at home, connecting with nature might mean having large windows overlooking the garden. You can also improve working conditions by having natural materials in your office or school room, such as wooden furniture, natural stones and pot plants.

Indoor plants

Our research has demonstrated that even a small number of plants hanging in pockets on along a busy corridor provide enough nature to influence our physiological and psychological perceptions.

These plants even caused behavioural differences, where people would change their route through a building to come into contact with the indoor plants.

We surveyed 104 people, and 40% of the respondents reported their mood and emotions improved in the presence of indoor plants.

They felt “relaxed and grounded” and “more interested”. The presence of indoor greenery provides a place to “relax from routine” and it made the space “significantly more pleasant to work in”.

Our study showed the benefits of indoor greenery.
Author provided

As one person reported:

When I first saw the plants up on the wall brought a smile to my face.

Whenever I walk down the stairs or walk past I mostly always feel compelled to look at the plants on the wall. Not with any anxiety or negative thoughts, rather, at how pleasant and what a great idea it is.

Looking at wildlife photography

Our research also explored whether viewing images, posters or paintings of nature would make a difference.

We photographed the plants from viewpoints similar to those the corridor users experienced. Survey responses from those who only viewed these digital images were almost the same as those who experienced them in real life.

While we can’t say for sure, we can hypothesise that given the importance of vision in modern humans, an image that “looks” like nature might be enough to trigger a biophilic response.




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We know contact with nature makes you feel better. Can virtual contact do the same?


However, physically being in the presence of plants did have some stronger behavioural effects. For example corridor users wanted to linger longer looking at the plants than those who viewed the photographs, and were more likely to want to visit the plants again. Maybe the other senses – touch, smell, even sound – created a stronger biophilic response than just sight alone.

So the good news is if you can’t get to a nursery – or if you have a serious inability to keep plants alive – you can still benefit from looking at photographs of them.

Looking at photos of nature can improve your mood.
Bee Balogun/Unsplash, CC BY

If you haven’t been taking your own photos, search the plethora of images from wildlife photographers such as Doug Gimesy, Frans Lanting and Tanya Stollznow.

Or check out live camera feeds of a wide range of environments, and travel to far-flung places without leaving the safety of home.

While we haven’t tested the mood-boosting effects of live videos, we hypothesise their physiological and psychological effects will be no different than digital photographs.

Here are seven places to help you get started.

  • The Bush Blitz citizen science app launched a new online tool today. The species recovery program encourages children to explore their backyard to identify different species.

  • “From the bottom of the sea direct to your screen”: watch this underwater live stream of Victoria’s rocky reef off Port Phillip Bay

  • The Coastal Watch website offers live camera feeds on beaches around Australia.

  • Watch the running water, trees and occasional fauna in California’s Redwood Forest River.

  • In pastoral Australia, go on a four-hour drive through the country side along tree-lined roads.

  • Zoos Victoria has set up live cameras that show its animals in natural (and nature-like) environments from Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo.

  • Yellowstone National Park may be closed right now, but webcams are stationed in various locations throughout the park.




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The Conversation


Cris Brack, Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli, Graduate student

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