Act now on climate change to protect Australians’ mental health

A long-term threat of natural disaster is likely to increase rates of anxiety among young people. AAP

In September 2010, BHP Billiton CEO Marius Kloppers proposed Australia take action on climate change before the rest of the world to maintain its international economic competitiveness.

A report released today by The Climate Institute, offers another key reason for early action – the maintenance of our mental health and community well-being.

The report highlights that more frequent and more intense extreme weather events will result not simply in increased destruction of our physical infrastructure but will have devastating effects on the social fabric of our society.

The effects will be greatest in those smaller rural and regional towns where catastrophic weather events cause immediate loss of life and destruction of economic viability. It will also have profound psychological effects on individuals and the communities in which they live.

In recent years in Australia, we have become more familiar with counting not only the dollar costs of prolonged drought, bushfires, cyclones and floods but also the emotional and social costs.

In the short term, there are the predictable but significant increased rates of anxiety, depression and alcohol and other substance misuse.

There is additional dislocation of services and supports to those who were already receiving health care or social assistance.

In the longer term, the effects on the community are far more costly and more profound.

In smaller communities, families and local support networks are often torn apart as individual members need to seek shelter, employment or education in other locations.

Where the destruction has been widespread, significant numbers of people may never return to their original homes or communities. This loss of social cohesion puts individuals in those settings at much greater risk of longer-term mental health problems.

The report also draws attention to the likely long-term effects on children, particularly the prospect of increasing rates of anxiety.

This may not only be a consequence of direct exposure to life-threatening situations and dislocation from family and community supports, it’s likely to result from living with that long-term threat of severe weather events.

Clearly, there’s a need to provide a cohesive response to these issues to assist with reducing that longer-term sense of threat.

The report sets a framework for the need to plan our actions in the future.

At one level, that obviously involves international and national planning to reduce the likelihood of more frequent and severe weather events.

Next, we need to be clear about how we can respond effectively to reduce the adverse impacts of severe weather events on mental health and social cohesion.

A strong emphasis on backing community rather than professionally-based responses is essential to that task.

Finally, we need to be clear that the impacts on mental health are not just short-term but continue for long periods. In the worst instances, where many people, households, businesses and community assets have been lost, some communities may never recover.

As Australia is a country that knows the impacts of severe weather events, and the costs and significance of mental health for our future social and economic prosperity, we need really to heed the advice not only of our senior mining executives, but also our climate scientists and our mental health experts.

Taking appropriate steps earlier rather than later is clearly in our national interest. If that is before some of our international colleagues, so be it.

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