Queensland doctors see mental health cases surge after disasters

Queensland doctors have seen a surge in the number of patients presenting with mental health problems following a spate of natural disasters earlier this year, a survey by an industry body has found.

A survey by the Australian Medical Association of Queensland found that 60% of doctors had seen or expected to see a spike in mental health cases after widespread floods and Cyclone Yasi wreaked havoc on the state earlier this year.

As many as 52% of doctors expected the natural disasters would continue to affect mental health for another 12 months.

The same study asked 400 Queenslanders about mental health following the disasters and found that 24% were very concerned about the mental health of family and friends and a further 11% were extremely concerned.

“However, only 5% said it was easy to tell if someone was experiencing mental health difficulties and 23% said if they felt they weren’t coping they’d battle on and keep it to themselves,” said the AMA Queensland President Dr Gino Pecoraro. “This is the worst possible course of action a person with a mental illness can take.”

The industry body has urged Queenslanders to watch for signs of emotional distress, including poor sleep, nightmares, tearfulness, problems at work, a pattern of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or a pattern of withdrawing from family and friends.

Unreasonable irritability and being easily startled were other telltale signs, the AMA Queensland said.

Single parents, young children, elderly people, small business owners, girls and women and ethnic minorities were seen as most at risk, as were rescue workers and volunteers.

Dr Pecoraro said doctors in Tully, which was ravaged by Cyclone Yasi earlier this year, reported concerns that some of their middle-aged male patients were suffering emotional distress but were too stoic to talk about it.

“It may just need some debriefing or talking about their feelings. But the longer you leave it, the more severe the anxiety can become,” he told The Conversation.

Delaying seeking help could also mean that more involved treatment strategies or medications may be needed to address the problem, he said.

Professor Don Byrne, the head of the Australian National University’s School of Psychology, said it was common for mental health problems to follow natural disasters, especially for people who had lost their material possessions.

“There needs to be continuous and quite conspicuous public education programs to say it’s very normal to feel upset and uptight after that experience. Don’t feel abnormal, recognize what you are feeling and seek help,” he told The Conversation.

“Except in rare cases of geographic isolation, there would always be access to one kind of mental health service or another. It’s much more important for people to know that those things available,” he said.

Read more about how people are affected by natural disasters - How to manage the psychological effects of disasters