Floods expose social inequities, and potential mental health epidemic in its wake
Marginalised populations most affected.
University of Sydney experts say floods and disasters leave communities highly vulnerable to health problems, which include anxiety, PTSD and mosquito borne diseases, unless action is taken.
Researchers from Faculty of Medicine and Health and University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore say Northern NSW is facing a potential epidemic of mental health problems including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from the recent floods.
Particularly at risk are marginalised communities, including people living with disability and their carers.
Research led by the University Centre for Rural Health documented the impact of the 2017 Northern NSW floods. It found people who were displaced from the floods after six months had double the probability of reporting continuing distress and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression when compared to those who were briefly displaced.
The researchers are calling for long-term government support to sustain local health and community services for flood-affected residents. They say disaster recovery programs need to be designed to support affected communities in the long term, not just in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters.
Mental health and displacement – lessons from the 2017 Northern NSW Floods
Professor James Bennett-Levy says thousands of households in Northern NSW have lost their homes to flood and have been displaced, which renders them highly vulnerable to mental health problems.
“This is a cause of considerable concern – not just because of the economic, social and domestic hardships that displacement implies,” says Professor Bennett-Levy, who is an expert on the impact of disasters on mental health and well-being.
A recent study led by the University Centre for Rural health of the 2017 Northern NSW floods found people who were displaced from their homes for more than six months had particularly poor mental health outcomes on depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“Furthermore, the more sites that were affected (e.g., a person’s home, business, local community), the worse the mental health outcomes. For example, people with three or more sites directly affected had six times the odds of reporting continuing PTSD,” says Professor Bennett-Levy.
“What can help? Our studies show the length of displacement should be minimised as people who were displaced for shorter periods had better health outcomes.
“Our research also shows that community engagement and support are vital, and the focus of the disaster recovery programs needs to be extended well beyond the immediate aftermath of natural disasters.
“Rapid resolution of insurance claims can really assist with mental health recovery and resilience.
“A particular vulnerability in NSW is likely to be the flood impacts on health and social-care professionals, all of whom have been directly or indirectly impacted by the floods.
“Housing stress and post-disaster related burnout are additional factors which are likely to impact on this workforce.”
People with disability and carers should not be left behind
We need to make sure people with disability and carers are not left behind.
Ms Jodie Bailee
The floods have exposed and exacerbated existing social inequities and climate change means that there will be more frequent and severe disasters, says Ms Jodie Bailie, a researcher at the University Centre for Rural Health who examines the mental health and wellbeing of marginalised communities.
Ms Bailee says people with disability have a right to safety and wellbeing during emergencies.
Floods expose social inequities and exacerbate the housing crisis for people with disability and their carers. Socioeconomic disparities bring greater impacts, but @Sydney_Uni experts suggest ways governments can minimise a housing crisis. https://t.co/mvuhU72Xzs— The Conversation (@ConversationEDU) March 16, 2022
Extreme weather impacts marginalised communities the most
Dr Veronica Matthews from the University Centre for Rural Health says extreme weather events disproportionately impact populations who tend to be the least equipped to respond adequately due to the lack of finances or social supports.
“The 2017 Northern Rivers flood event was no different; the majority of people directly affected in flooded areas came from the lowest socio-economic groups – both in the Lismore township (82 percent) & Tweed region (50 percent),” said Dr Matthews.
Potential increase of mosquito-borne diseases
According to Dr Kazi Rahman, Senior Lecturer of Rural Research Education at the University Centre for Rural Health, mathematical modelling on the flooding in February 2019 in Townsville showed an increase in mosquito-borne diseases. These included ross river virus and barmah forest virus Ross River Virus and Barmah Forest Virus diseases, and disease reached its peak one-and-a-half months after the flood receded.
The study suggested that flash-flooding initially unsettles the mosquito habitat.
People displaced more likely to have PTSD and anxiety
People who were displaced for any period were more likely to have probable anxiety and post-traumatic stress than people who were not exposed to the flood, according to Dr Jo Longman, a social scientist at the University Centre for Rural health.
Dr Longman examines the health of people living in rural Australia, and the mental-health impacts of climate change.
She led a cross-sectional survey six months after the devastating 2017 floods in the Northern Rivers to examine how it impacted the mental health of affected communities.