You scroll through your phone and even more images of streets reduced to burned rubble, wounded wild animals and maps show the magnitude of the fires that continue to burn. On background television, a woman who lost her home collapses, while news of another lost life flickers on the screen.
You can’t bear to look anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sounds familiar?
Now we have faced these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you have not been directly affected by forest fires, it is completely normal to feel sad, helpless and even anxious.
Beyond the despair over the devastation that many Australians face, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety.”
The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change also affects our mental health
If you feel bad, you are not alone
Research on previous forest fire disasters shows that people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.
After Black Saturday, approximately one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.
By recognizing this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funds to provide mental health support to affected people and communities.
But living in an unaffected area does not mean you are immune. In addition to competing with rolling images and stories of devastation, we have seen that the effects of forest fires reach far beyond the affected areas.
For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer vacations, and sports games and community events have been suspended. This disruption of normal activities can generate uncertainty and anguish, particularly for children and young people.
What is ecological anxiety?
The anguish surrounding current fires can be aggravated, and intertwined, with a generalized feeling of fear and anxiety in relation to events related to climate change.
The American Psychological Association defines ecological anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental fatality.”
While the concern and anxiety about climate change are normal, ecological anxiety describes a state of overwhelm because of the magnitude, complexity and seriousness of the problems we face. It may be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.
The increase in ecological anxiety means that we must address mental health along with food security
Australian forest fires may have signaled a “turning point” for many people who had a passive attitude towards climate change, and even for many who had a more active view of climate denial. Given the current circumstances, the climate change crisis now becomes almost impossible to ignore.
While ecological anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have a significant impact on a person’s well-being.
Whether you think you are suffering from ecological anxiety or more general stress and depression about forest fires, here are some things you can do.
We are quite resistant, but the support helps
We are now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires that people adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and live with uncertainty.
We can improve this resistance by connecting with friends and family and participating positively in our communities. It can also help to make healthy decisions about things like diet, exercise and sleep.
In addition, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person who provides and the person receiving assistance. For example, parents have a fundamental role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing them with adequate guidance.
Babies and young children may not know that there is a fire, but disasters continue to wreak havoc
Is it part of the solution
Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help ease feelings of guilt and helplessness, in addition to the positive difference these small actions make for the environment.
This could include walking, biking and taking public transportation to get around, and making sustainability a factor in everyday decisions, such as what you buy and what you eat.
Joining one of the many groups that advocate for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned with the changing climate.
Finally, there are many ways in which you can provide assistance for forest fire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many face enormous difficulties.
Seeking professional help
Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological problems, will find it more difficult to adapt to increased stress. When your emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate the change.
Although we still don’t have research on this, people with pre-existing mental health problems are likely to be more vulnerable to ecological anxiety.
If it is you, it is worth seeking professional help if you feel that your mental health is deteriorating at this time.
How to donate to Australian forest fire relief: give money, be alert to scams and think long term
Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you feel depressed or anxious to some extent that it is affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek the advice of a health professional.
Evidence-based psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.
If this article has raised problems for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline at 13 11 14.