Burning anxiety: The new normal isn’t just the fire, it’s the fear

Waking up in a country we no longer recognise is a shock to the psyche.

Waking up in a country we no longer recognise is a shock to the psyche. Photo: Getty

Back in September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the United Nations that the climate change debate was subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety”.

A few weeks later, Australia began to burn. It’s been burning for months, with no end in sight – an apocalypse from which entire communities will still be recovering, and feel hurt by, when sooner than later the nightmare will start over again.

If the fire chiefs and climate forecasters are correct – and common sense still means anything – we’ll burn again just as brightly and painfully over and over again. If not next year, the year after that.

Which is why the climate-consequence anxiety of our children isn’t needless after all. In fact it’s now a national trend. Because mummy and daddy are feeling it too. Who isn’t even a little afraid? Who doesn’t wonder where things will go from here?

As a nation, how mentally off-kilter are we?

For people directly affected by the fires – be it losing a home or a family member, or spending terrified nights huddled with your children on a beach as the flames sizzle closer – there’s the matter of immediate trauma and later depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, mood disorders, suicidal tendencies and alcohol abuse.

Children caught up in the fires are especially vulnerable as studies show here and here.

For a guide to how this will play out, a freely-available 2014 research paper, ‘Psychological outcomes following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires’ looks at the mental health of people living in communities that experienced low to high impact from the 2009 fires that killed 173 people, and were often characterised as a freak occurrence.

The paper’s conclusions were both encouraging and concerning:

“Several years following the Black Saturday bushfires the majority of affected people demonstrated resilience without indications of psychological distress.

“A significant minority of people in the high-affected communities reported persistent PTSD, depression and psychological distress, indicating the need for promotion of the use of health and complementary services, community-based initiatives, and family and other informal supports, to target these persistent problems.”

The scale of psychological distress from the 2019-20 fires – still burning – will undoubtedly be much bigger, and consequently a bigger drain on mental health resources. So there’s that.

What about the general vibe?

The ABC ran a helpful piece quoting mental health experts who noted that “with images of distraught families fleeing bushfires, blackened homes, dead animals and smoke-filled skies, it’s hard not to be affected by Australia’s bushfire crisis.”

Just seeing the fires on the telly – there’s little escaping it – can prompt a “normal reaction to feel fearful, anxious or overwhelmed”.

Live through poor air quality for a few days – tasting smoke that doesn’t smell like wood but acrid toxic gas – and those feelings are bound to intensify.

In other words, even for people exposed to the fires at a safe distance – threats to respiratory health notwithstanding – we’re all a bit rattled and fair enough. But does it go further than that? Won’t we just get over it, as we’ve always done or seemed to do before?

US publication TIME this week sort of pondered this question in a piece ‘How the Bushfires Threaten Australian’s Mental Health’.

The most intriguing quote came from California-based psychotherapist Diane Ross-Glazer – who has counselled disaster survivors and lived through what the Americans call wildfires, and her opinions are clearly filtered through her personal experiences.

“Their national psyche will change,” Ms Ross-Glazer said of Australians. “You’re not only grieving what you lost; you’re grieving for your country.”

This idea that our national psyche will change, or is in the process of changing, is inevitable if these fires – and the drier climate that enables them – is “the new normal”, as reported here, here, here and here.

If we really are bound – even doomed – to go through a super-sized inferno as an annual event, more top of mind than the cricket or the tennis, then yeah, the Aussie mind and emotional pitch can’t help but be blown.

But aren’t fires simply a part of our national identity?

Australia’s relationship with the bush – and bushfires – had for a long time largely a mythic quality. Farmers in the outback stoically bore the brunt of all manner of natural disasters. It was all so frightening and enlivening, occurring at a great distance from where most people lived. Coastal people drew on that battler spirit to convince themselves they, too, were a hardy, capable lot.

This folktale began to look shabby with the Ash Wednesday fires that traumatised South Australia and Victoria in 1983. Then came the 2009 Black Saturday fires that wiped entire communities off the map and resulted in a royal commission that essentially, implicitly asked: How are we meant to live in fire-prone places?

Now just about everywhere – think of Canberra, 2003 – is fire-prone.

But what’s happening now – you’ve heard this repeatedly – is different.

And this is why overseas commentators are so fascinated with Australia’s horror story. The international jeering and mockery of our government’s failure to meaningfully respond to climate change and protect its own citizens, is a sideshow, almost comic relief.

People are fascinated with Australia’s plight – the demonic quality of these fires, the emotional difficulty of living under threat – because they see it as a kind of falling domino.

Michael Mann is a climatologist and atmospheric science professor at Penn State University who was visiting the Great Barrier Reef to see first-hand its reported decline when the fires broke out.

“There is no precedent for the scale and speed at which these bushfires are spreading,” Dr Mann told the US-based Mother Jones Podcast.

“It’s almost like we’re being given a vision for our future if we don’t act on climate.”

And so if we’re already living out a future that nobody else wants, why wouldn’t we be feeling a little nutty? And if fire has always been a part of our identity, at least in a storybook sense, weren’t we bound to be emotionally caught out when, as the saying goes, shit just got real?

The new normal: Why things will never be the same again

So what’s the nature of this change to our national psyche? There’s fear of course. And the growing recognition that what we assumed would happen at the end of the century – the nasty consequences of climate change – have begun to happen now, and happen here in the Lucky Country. The biggest blow to our sense of identity and sense of place is we’re now waking up in a country we no longer wholly recognise.

Dr Robert Llewellyn-Jones is a Sydney psychiatrist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Speaking to The New Daily, Dr Llewellyn-Jones said that if the predictions are accurate about these fires becoming a hallmark of the Australian way of life, “then our kids and grandkids will be living in a very different country. And that is going to affect our national psyche”.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as a secure, safe and prosperous nation. All of what we have taken for granted is threatened by the fact that we will be having many more extreme weather events.

“Those sorts of events are likely to make people feel helpless, and as a result of the helplessness and feeling it’s all too hard, it can make people develop a siege mentality.”

The bottom line here?

When people develop a siege mentality, “they aren’t using the flexible, creative thinking required to address the crisis”.

Dr Llewellyn-Jones said the national psyche is already being changed “by the fact that we’re losing iconic wildlife and habitat”.

“You only need to think of how badly the koala population has been decimated in NSW and the Gippsland area,” he said.

“That’s something people are worried about now.

“Everyone thought it was going to go bad at the end of the century. But it’s happening now. And this is either going to act as a huge wake-up call and lead to significant change in the way the population views climate change – and as a consequence the way politicians view it. Or it could go the other way: If people get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, people could become fatalistic, or even worse, go into denial.”

Dr Richard Yin is a Perth GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

In 2018, he published an essay – well worth reading – about the phenomenon of waking up in a country you no longer recognise, because it’s been destroyed. This phenomenon is called ‘solastalgia’, a word derived from nostalgia.

Dr Yin wrote: “While in nostalgia that pain relates to leaving one’s home, in a sense solastalgia is what happens when you remain within the same locality, but that sense of ‘home’, that sense of place, is lost through the destruction of the landscape; it is the homesickness you have when you are still at home.

“Symptoms included feelings of grief, trauma, nostalgia, alienation, depression, anxiety and loss.”

In the essay he quoted a survivor of the Black Saturday fires in the Latrobe Valley:

“But it’s sterile, it’s still sterile now. The worst thing about — I don’t know, everyday it’s a different worse thing, but one of the most difficult things about losing everything in a fire, and I guess people lose to house fires all the time, but it totally changed everything about our place, not just the inside, not just the house, not just our stuff, but all our history. Basically it just wiped us, for the last 14 years, off the planet.”

In an email responding to questions, Dr Yin said the size of the area affected by these fires will “be a constant reminder, a trigger for associated anxiety for many as they will have to travel through it.
Emblematic of who we are is the bush, our farming communities, our fauna, blue skies and lazy summers … they have all been affected this summer. So I do expect, personally, without any evidence, that it has affected us has a nation and there is a grieving.

“But the world and Australia are constantly changing, the landscape now is not the landscape of the early 1900s. The difference is the simply the rate of change. So will we continue to adapt to a new norm? We are resilient as humans but it doesn’t remove the scars.”

Lyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist and social commentator. She has written on the emotional costs of climate change – which includes a rather stark admission of her own sense of being overwhelmed: “As someone who has worked with grief and trauma, I now find the age-old concepts of grief management hopelessly puny and inadequate”.

Among Ms Bender’s clients are climate change activists. She said that part of other anxiety has come from walking down the street “and realising that so many don’t realise what’s coming”.

Well that’s one problem solved: The horror isn’t coming, it’s already here.

Where people can go for support

The NSW Mental Health line on 1800 011 511

The Disaster Welfare Assistance Line on 1800 018 444

Beyond Blue’s support service can be reached on 1300 22 4636

Advanced Personnel Management are offering free phone counselling to people affected by the disaster on 1800 276 113

Lifeline is also available on 13 11 14

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