Climate crisis sparks mental health concerns

MICHELLE sits on a couch with me one hazy afternoon in Lismore. It’s her daughter’s second birthday and the proud, newly two-year-old is playing on the carpet with a pink kaleidoscope. The conversation turns briefly to climate change.

“I’m terrified,” she says.

“I’m about to have another baby. I sometimes wake up in a panic. What’s the world going to look like for my children?”

Mum, Michelle, holds her daughter's hand, both with backs to camera

by Katie Rasch
Michelle worries for her daughter’s future in the face of climate change


I don’t have any words, so I hum in sympathy. It’s not easy to respond to that kind of fear even if it hasn’t advanced to the stage where it is causing protracted distress.

Michelle is my aunt and everyone in the room with us is here to celebrate our family’s youngest member.

Looking at them, I can’t help but wonder the same thing: What is life going to look like for my family?

Last year, the UN said the world had only 12 years to lower carbon emissions to zero and drastically change its agricultural systems to avoid certain disaster as unchecked global warming will lead to irreversible climate change.

Four young men stand at the end of a flooded street
by Smoken Mirror (CC-BY-NC-2.0)
Climate change has already been felt with more floods, fires and heatwaves.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change says that, if we continue like this, we can predict the loss of 70-90 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef as well as food and water scarcity, as low-lying land is inundated by sea water, droughts deepen and major weather events become more frequent.

Under the “business as usual” model, Australia continues to open new coal mines, produce tonnes of food waste and destroy swaths of native habitat.

Yet our political leaders remain complacent and, if you look around for real, concrete action on climate change, it is difficult to find.

We know all this and yet, as a society, the existential threat that climate change poses is really difficult to wrap our individual heads around.

The impact of a looming environmental disaster on mental health is just as difficult to accurately predict or quantify.

However, increasingly, research outcomes are suggesting mental health effects will be just as serious as physical ones.

These need be planned for and addressed.

While it is understandable an impending climate crisis may already be causing greater generalised anxiety, more serious, longer-term mental health outcomes are likely to be ahead for those experiencing the very real effects of climate change.

Already it has become evident that people living in rural and low-lying communities will be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Indeed, the Pacific Islands are already suffering dire consequences, with land and crops being inundated by rising sea levels.

Samoan climate activist Mary Harm said that, in her country, schools of fish were already arriving out of season, while leaves and flowers were not blooming at the right times to make cultural garments.

She said the physical impacts on Pacific Island communities could not be understated.

Professor Helen Berry headshot
by University of Sydney (supplied)
Professor Helen Berry researches the links between mental health and climate change at the University of Sydney.

And here in Australia, climate change is hitting rural areas the hardest.

Droughts are more frequent and protracted, with the disruptions causing increasing negative impact on economies and communities.

Official statistics show the incidences of suicide and other mental health issues are rising.

Helen Berry is a Professor of Climate Change and Mental Health at the University of Sydney.

In her article for the Climate Brief UK, Professor Berry cites research that says heatwaves have the same effect on mental health as unemployment.

Yet the avalanche of climate change news and information, while important, can also be overwhelming and even debilitating.

It can leave people like Michelle out of control, facing an uncertain future, and vulnerable to mental health complications.


So what can you do if you feel this way?

1. Help out.

There are several organisations you can join to do your part, locally.
Australian Youth Climate Coalition
Climate Action Network Australia
Australian Conservation Foundation

2. Talk to someone.

It’s vital to know who to reach out to if you do need help.
Beyond Blue
Call Lifeline 13 11 14

3. Switch off for a bit.

Information, opinion pieces and the reports will still be there when you log back on. There’s no shame in taking a break, especially for the sake of your mental health.


Words: Katie Rasch
Main image: Katie Rasch / The Argus


Want to read more?
The original version of this story is one of 30 in a special online Climate Change edition of The Argus that was compiled by Queensland College of Art students from a final-year course called Transmedia Storytelling.