Corona and Climate: Mental Health in an Age of Uncertainty

Jo Longman and Maddy Braddon find stark parallels between their work on the mental health and wellbeing impacts of climate change and the current pandemic gripping so many lives.

Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash.

Even though we behave as though it isn’t, change is a near-constant in our world, and at present, it feels like crisis is the new normal. The kinds of radical changes we have had to adapt to during the most devastating bushfire season in NSW on record and now throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have brought our relationship with the physical and social world into sharp relief.

Reflecting on this whilst feeling completely overwhelmed in lockdown, we have been struck by the incredible similarities between how our mental health has been affected by both the bushfire crisis and pandemic experiences.

The powerful and diverse mental health impacts of the climate crisis are becoming more widely recognised. Reading through some of this literature to conduct a review (focused mainly on climate change in the form of extreme weather-related events such as floods and fires), we discerned three ‘pathways’ by which these events affect our mental health.

Direct, distal and generalised impacts

Firstly, a direct impact exacerbates pre-existing mental illness, affects mood disorders like depression and increases suicidality through a direct experience. For example, the terror of experiencing a direct threat to one’s life from a bushfire, or the aching loss and grief of losing one’s home and treasured possessions. In the case of COVID-19, it seems that this direct mental health impact would be experienced by people facing the fear and uncertainty of a positive test result, and by the numerous healthcare workers on the frontline, trying to cope with the distress of, for example, impossible decision making.

The second, ‘distal’, pathway is characterised by a profound mental health impact (e.g. anxiety, emotional distress, vicarious trauma) not related to a direct experience of the climate crisis but that is there none the less. An example of this would be feeling distressed by all the debris piled up on the streets following a flood even when one’s own home or suburb was not inundated with floodwater. Similarly, many of us watched on in horror, albeit from a distance, at the scenes unfolding in New York City at the height of the pandemic in the US and feared what might or could have happened in our own communities here in Australia.

The final pathway is more generalised, characterised as a broader climate anxiety, a ‘climate grief’ if you will, about the health of the planet and the uncertainty of its future. This affects mental health in terms of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, frustration, and a loss of connection to place, identity, and sense of control. This existentially threatening sense of impending apocalypse and its mental health impacts has been with us throughout the pandemic.

Community resilience

What we know from research on the mental health impacts of the climate crisis is that community resilience (including social capital, the ‘glue’ that holds society together1) can protect against negative mental health outcomes. This community resilience can be defined as the “existence, development, and engagement of community resources by community members to thrive in an environment characterised by change, uncertainty, unpredictability, and surprise”2 and is associated with optimism, being socially connected, learning from the past and learning patience and tolerance.

This pandemic has taught us to really appreciate, in the starkest way, the fine mesh of social relationships that are integral to our mental health and wellbeing and that being physically distanced is actually incredibly hard. There have also been inspiring displays of community resilience as groups come together around ‘mutual aid’, here in Australia and beyond. This, we hope, is showing us what is of greatest value in society, that we cannot get through adversity that affects us all as individuals. Not only this, but we can act together in caring ways to become stronger and participate in solutions to society-wide problems like the climate crisis and pandemics.

Many others have been thinking about and discussing these powerful parallels between the climate crisis and the pandemic. An open letter submitted in May 2020 by health professionals to G20 leaders argues that a healthy recovery includes a focused effort on pollution, climate change and deforestation, in order to prevent “unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations”.

Extreme weather, and the capacity to recover from it individually and as a community (physically, financially, mentally and emotionally) does not affect the population equally. Similarly, COVID-19 seems to have had the greatest impact on disadvantaged parts of the community. Regardless of what kind of crisis emerges, it is crucial that governments, policymakers and support services continue to find robust ways to support communities, to strengthen their capacity to thrive and support one another through hardship. Witnessing the unequal impacts of the climate crisis and the pandemic unfold demonstrates the importance of a strong collective response.

We acknowledge and pay our deepest respects to the Widjabul Wybal and Nyangabal people whose land we live and work on.

1. McKenzie K, Whitley R, Weich S. Social capital and mental health. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002;181(4):280-3
2. Magis K. Community resilience: An indicator of social sustainability. Society and Natural Resources. 2010;23(5):401-16. p.402

This article is part of our Corona and Climate Series, an ongoing collection of opinion pieces from leading experts in the SEI community. In a time of intersecting planetary crises, this series analyses the parallels between ecological and epidemiological crisis, focussing on questions of resilience, adaptation and justice on local and global scales.

Jo Longman is a Research Fellow at the University Centre for Rural Health (part of The University of Sydney, based in rural northern NSW). Jo leads a project collaborating with a broad team including colleagues from the SEI, funded by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the University of Sydney. The project aims to develop a typology of the mental health and wellbeing impacts of climate change, and to explore enhancing resilience among vulnerable rural communities. To date the project has conducted a Scoping Review of the literature and developed a draft typology. The next stage of the project is to engage the community in three rural NSW locations to review the findings and identify priorities, and to then develop a policy brief for government based on the findings of the project.

Maddy Braddon is a research assistant on the project Identifying the impacts of climate change on mental health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations and strengthening intersectoral capacity to enhance rural adaptability and resilience. Maddy has an Environmental Science background and is a change-maker with a focus on climate justice and building community resilience.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.