Hot Australia takes a toll on mental health Opinion Article

Jan 08, 2013 - 12:00pm

This article first appeared in ABC's The Drum on 8 January 2013.

Corey Watts
Regional Projects Manager, The Climate Institute 

The Australian climate is inherently moody, but it is becoming more hostile, exacting a heavy toll on our physical and mental health, writes Corey Watts.In the days leading up to the horror of the Black Saturday fires four years ago - during a fortnight when temperature records were broken from Ceduna to Wagga - more than 2,000 people were treated for heat-related illness.

This year has only just started and already temperature records are being broken. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the country as a whole has had its first five consecutive days of average maximum temperatures above 39 degrees Celsius since records began. As the heat wave continues to roll across southern Australia, there are reports (paywall) of at least several dozen people hospitalised and an unknown number of deaths.

Of course, we've always had hot days and fires, but their frequency and intensity are rising. The Australian climate is inherently moody, but it is becoming more hostile, pushing human beings to their mental and physical limits.

We must do our level best to avoid the unmanageable consequences of full-blown climate change. At the same time, we have no choice but to manage the unavoidable, recognising the full human cost of disasters, and reinvesting in resilience and recovery, as well emergency responses. To delay action is to court a lot of unnecessary human suffering.

In a 2011 report The Climate Institute drew on a wide array of scientific studies and expert opinion to look at what extreme weather events and climate change mean for human wellbeing, and our mental health in particular. Studies point to a rising mental health toll in a time of climate change.

What emerges is a picture, not of slowly, steadily, gently rising temperatures and seas, but of erratic, jagged change. We're playing with the planetary thermostat, mixing normal climatic variability with climate change to produce weather that lurches and jerks more than we're used to.

Australians have been given a preview of life in a more hostile climate: more than a decade of drought followed by torrential downpours, and punctuated by increasingly hotter heat waves and fires - breaking record after record. While most of us cope well enough with a few very hot days, make no mistake: heat waves injure and they kill.

In a heat wave, people quickly become grumpier, more strained. Tempers flare. Thinking and concentration are impaired. We tire and snap and snarl more easily. Normal road rage is amplified. Domestic disputes turn nasty more easily. This has costs and consequences: it ties up law enforcement, hospitals, and other critical services.

The heat affects everybody, including the paramedics, police, firefighters, nurses, and others upon whom the rest of rely when the proverbial hits the fan. When rail lines buckle or overhead wires snap or power grids are overwhelmed by excessive demand, we rely on real-live human beings to fix them, and soon.

Not surprisingly, the literature shows that aggressive, anti-social behaviour is also heightened during a heat wave, aided and abetted by binge-drinking and other kinds of drug abuse. The human cost can be high, even tragic as the risk of accidents, violence, and self-harm go up.

There is no single adversity that drives someone to suicide, but extremely hot conditions can tip an at-risk person into the abyss; particularly if they're male, it seems. For some folks - such as the elderly, the infirm, and those on certain temperature-sensitive medications - hot conditions sometimes prove deadly.

Bushfires are particularly devastating. A 2007 expert report commissioned by The Climate Institute show that the risk of bushfire weather is rising rapidly and could nearly double by 2020.

How a person copes depends on many factors, during, before and after the conflagration. Post-traumatic stress disorder can afflict around one in five people, including children. Symptoms - including flashbacks, nightmares, heightened distress, as well as a pile of physical problems - usually subside in a few months, but can recur or become chronic. Add to this an increased incidence of depression and anxiety, particularly where people have lost family, friends and property.

The after-effects of bushfires can linger for years. Following the 2009 tragedy at Kinglake, Victoria, reports have emerged of higher-than-normal drug and alcohol abuse, as well as disempowerment following an initial burst of solidarity in the first few months post-disaster. Social workers express concerns about truancy, drug abuse, and thoughts of suicide amongst youngsters who have had their faith in the world shaken to its core.

Today, Australia as a whole is strong. Given a hand up and enduring, though not disempowering support, many if not most individuals and communities prove resilient in the face of disaster. Most of us shrug off a few hot days and carry on.

But as we watch the reports of yet another fire-ravaged community, we should question: what are the limits to your resilience? How much heat could you take?

In the last century, Australia's average temperature rose by slightly less than one degree. Try to imagine life in a world not just one-degree warmer, but three or four. While some further warming is already locked in to the climate system, the worst is still avoidable. We must do our level best to avoid the unmanageable consequences of full-blown climate change. At the same time, we have no choice but to manage the unavoidable, recognising the full human cost of disasters, and reinvesting in resilience and recovery, as well emergency responses. To delay action is to court a lot of unnecessary human suffering.

 


Corey Watts

Corey Watts is the Manager of Policy and Science Projects at The Climate Institute. He works with scientists, communicators, and policymakers to promote public literacy in climate science, understand climate risks for Australian life and society, and help ensure public policy matches the science of climate change. Hailing from Western Australia, Corey studied biology at Murdoch University and later earnt a Master’s in environmental history and policy from the University of Melbourne. He has worked in environmental science, research, and policy development. 

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