By Elizabeth Dangerfield
Like so many in Australia at this moment my anxiety about the future has impacted on my mental health. But those who have borne the brunt of these catastrophic fires; those who have lost their homes, property, livestock; those who have been fighting fires for weeks; those who have been trying to save animals so cruelly affected by the fires; those who have been evacuated and wondered what was ahead of them; those who do not know where their next meal is coming from, where they are going to live or how on earth they are going to start again; those who are totally despondent and exhausted: their mental health must be severely compromised by their harrowing experiences over the last months. We have all, in our way been impacted by the horror of this gigantic disaster as we have watched it unfold.
When I watched Andrew Constance, NSW MP, express his heartbreak over the devastation in his electorate and the impact on his and his family’s mental health I could not help but suffer with him. Here was a man who had stared unflinchingly into the stark reality of what had happened as a result of these bushfires and felt the suffering of others on his shoulders. The reality is that what has happened is absolutely appalling and there is no quick fix, no platitude, no forced handshake that can make the hurt go away quickly. Neither should it, we need to remember this event for what it is and recognise that people will need a great deal of support over a long time to get over this, physically, mentally, socially and economically.
My mental health issues come from a slightly different place. They started in earnest three years ago when I realised that the Earth I knew and loved was slipping away and with it a decent future for people as well as all the other wonderful living things on this planet. I am a trained zoologist with an interest in ecology, I have studied geology at university and taught science, understand probability and risk assessment, so I have been able to read the reports and research that have been coming out for many years warning of human induced global warming, its impact on our climate and the terrible consequences of not acting effectively to slow down climate change. They are compelling.
I know what the world will be like if we exceed 2°C of global warming – for example just about all coral reefs will die and ecosystems will collapse; at 3°C we are likely to have severe impacts on people with massive numbers of climate refugees, many deaths and the breakdown of our economies and societies; at 4°C, which could happen by the end of this century, the Earth may no longer be able to sustain life as we know it.
Not only that, the impact of global warming is already more severe than anticipated and although we have not yet reached a global average of 1.5°C the impact on our ecosystems has been severe. The hottest year on record, the driest year on record, the hottest decade on record, have resulted in prolonged drought, water shortages, high temperatures, longer fire seasons and exacerbated the conditions for mega fires. We have the greatest amount of CO2 in the atmosphere than we have had for millions of years. Biodiversity is plummeting. And there is great concern that we are already seeing tipping points that will accelerate climate changes such as changes in ocean currents, loss of sea ice and the thawing of the tundra.
What does it do to your mental health to know that we are squandering one of the most precious things in the whole universe; our unique planet with its remarkable biosphere What do you do feel when you have read all the predictions made about over population, over consumption and climate change since the 1970s and still there is a lack of will to do what needs to be done to fix the problem? Imagine how it plunges you into a black despair when you realise the fires we have experienced, needn’t have been so catastrophic. It is mind-numbing and it certainly keeps me awake at night. I am not the only one. One of our foremost climate scientist Joëll Gergis, a lead author of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report, and an expert adviser to the Climate Council, recently said we are seeing the worst of our scientific predictions come to pass in these bushfires and she can’t sleep at night worrying about it either.
I know that there are strategies to deal with my grief and anxiety. You can recognise that you are not alone, and many other people feel similarly and that lots of people are working hard to change things. You can recognise that you are powerless to do anything but change your own behaviour and having done your utmost you can feel good about that. You can put worrying thoughts to one side and enjoy life in the present. You can practice gratitude. Of course, there is refuge in meditation, exercise, social events and laughter. You can seek counselling and read self-help books or join a group. Most strategies involve accepting that that’s life and making the most of it.
But one thing I cannot do is to pretend, like climate change deniers, that this catastrophe is not happening, or to do what many people do and is to go about their lives not thinking too much about it and hoping that someone will come up with a solution before too long. I cannot bury my head in the sand and nor should anyone else regardless of the mental health costs. It is not for me that I am anxious, it is for future generations, I have had a great life and climate change will not bother me too much before I die. It is not me that I grieve for but for the loss of something irreplaceable, wonderous and precious – life on Earth. We are facing an existential crisis and it is not alright and we should all be terribly upset about it.
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