29 August 2011 – Severe weather events as a result of climate change are already taking a huge toll on communities, including extreme stress, emotional injury and despair, leading to self harm and suicide at rates higher than the national average.

“Unabated, a more hostile climate will spell a substantial rise in the incidence of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.”

These are some of the key findings contained in a new report, A Climate of Suffering: The Real Cost of Living with Inaction on Climate Change, from The Climate Institute, released today at the Brain and Mind Institute in Sydney.

The findings add to the economic costs of extreme weather, estimated at  $9 billion in the last year, alone.

Anecdotal evidence in the report, collected from areas hit by extreme weather make for sobering reading:

  • · Kinglake, Victoria. Black Saturday 2009 bushfire survivor and Kinglake resident, Daryl Taylor, said the day of the fires was just the beginning of suffering in his community. “Kinglake is a ?canary in the coalmine community: record temperatures, humidity at extreme lows and an unexpected change of wind meant towns like ours had no chance. Since the ‘perfect storm’, trauma, grief and loss have been enduring constants, especially for those who have lost family, neighbours and close friends,” Mr Taylor said.
  • · Far North Queensland. Dr Allan Dale, a long-time Innisfail resident and chair of Regional Development Australia for Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait, is a survivor of tropical cyclones Larry in 2007 and Yasi in 2011. “After Larry, I came to experience the effects of widespread and prolonged community-wide trauma for the first time. To then have a second whopper cyclone hit within five years has many of us in this part of the north thinking about what the future could look like if predictions about more intense cyclones prove correct,” Dr Dale said.
  • · Natimuk, Victoria. Dr Rob Grenfell is a general practitioner based in Natimuk in Victoria‘s West Wimmera region which experienced the worst of the drought followed by heavy flooding in early 2011. “As a GP serving this community for a long time, I‘ve seen the direct human cost of climate changes.  Many businesses have gone broke and so many people have left the community. Financial stress also brings on psychological distress and, sadly, in some cases, suicide, and episodes of domestic violence, and alcohol and drug problems — with all of the resultant disharmony and pain,” he said.

EMBARGOED: 6.30am, Monday 29 August 2011

Dr Susie Burke, senior psychologist with the Australian Psychological Society, said: “Climate change is emerging as a major threat to mental health, with the trauma of extreme weather events manifesting directly, indirectly and through the broader impacts on communities, the economy and the environment.”

The report cites a study of rural New South Wales that found that self-harm and suicide rose by up to 8 per cent in the  recent drought.

Chief executive of The Climate Institute, John Connor, said that on top of the economic costs of up to $9 billion in the last year from extreme weather, ” we are starting to see the additional, deeper cost to human health and the social fabric.”

The report says that following a severe weather event, “a significant part of the community — as many as one in five — will suffer the debilitating effects of extreme stress, emotional injury and despair. Unabated, a more hostile climate will spell a substantial rise in the incidence of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

“The emotional and psychological toll of disasters can linger for months, even years, affecting whole families, the capacity for people to work and the wellbeing of the community. Higher rates of drug and alcohol misuse, violence, family dissolution, and suicide are more likely to follow more extreme weather events.

“Evidence is beginning to emerge that drought and heat waves lead to higher rates of self-harm and suicide, as much as 8 per cent higher.

“Mental illness is already the second largest contributor to the disease burden in Australia — potentially making millions of people more vulnerable to mental ill health in an increasingly hostile climate.

“The treatment and management of mental health problems already costs taxpayers over $5 billion per year, while the cost in lost productivity is estimated at another $2.7 billion — costs set to rise in a changing climate.

“Mental health problems also tend to coalesce with economic and social ones, meaning that the overall toll is likely to be larger still. In the recent drought, for example, 2004 figures indicate that around one in four rural workers had lost their job — about 100,000 agricultural workers, contractors and those employed in allied businesses.

“By 2007, prolonged dry conditions had eroded Australians‘ quality of life, in dollar terms, to the tune of approximately $5.4 billion.”