Mental health and adaptation to climate change

Dr Fiona Robards, Co-Convenor Mental Health Special Interest Group, PHAA

Climate change presents an existential threat. It is almost unbelievable that we may be confronting the breakdown of civilisation and human extinction. For parents, the prospect of their children experiencing predicted hardship can be particularly unthinkable.

The public is becoming increasingly aware of the mental health challenges associated with climate change and other global events. Natural disasters such as bushfires are increasing in frequency, and COVID-19 has changed our lives in ways that many of us never imagined.

Movements like Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike for Climate protests show that increasing numbers are recognising that climate change presents a real threat. The UN recently reported that many children are on the precipice of existential threat from a lack of climate action. The 2020 Lancet Commission, A future for the world’s children? found that rising inequality and environmental crises are major threats to peace and stability.

The limits to human growth have been recognised for many decades. It is comforting to believe that our way of life will continue well into the future when our children have grown up. But the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report estimates that global warming is likely to reach 3.2C by the end of the century, resulting in devastating health consequences in the form of extreme weather events, heatwaves, disease proliferation and food scarcity.

We know we will experience disasters with increasing frequency. The ABC recently reported on a confidential government report from a year ago which acknowledged the need to prepare for the increasing likelihood of a disaster that would disrupt our everyday lives. This disruption would come in the form of fuel shortages, diminished energy reserves, interrupted supply chains, medicine shortages, telecommunications breakdowns, food and water supply issues and social unrest. A stark picture to contemplate.

Our first approach should be to mitigate the health-related climate effects. But as climate effects rapidly take shape and opportunities for mitigation become smaller, adaptation is increasingly needed as well. Part of this adaptation relates to addressing the mental health impacts that events like climate change and COVID-19 bring.

Increasing extreme weather events and other climate-related disasters challenge us on many levels. Lifeline took an additional 10,000 calls during the peak of the fires over a six week period around January this year. The World Health Organization has warned of the mental health effects associated with COVID-19. Lockdowns, isolation and physical distancing increase feelings of loneliness and are often harmful to our mental wellbeing. Even though technology enables a certain level of social connection, there are concerns that prolonged isolation will have detrimental effects on mental health.

Professor Patrick McGorry, executive director of Orygen, says that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many will experience mild mental health symptoms that could benefit from self-help resources and supports. Some will require medical care, and a smaller number will need intensive support.

Online therapies and self-management tools are, therefore, an essential part of the solution. Head to Health provides links to trusted Australian online and phone supports, resources and treatment options. But, despite the Coronavirus National Health Plan and government investment in strengthening mental health services (including telehealth), our current health system is not well equipped to meet the surges in demand that would be needed with increasing disasters.

We need to strengthen our mental health systems in disaster preparedness. And we need to consider those who are most vulnerable as they are likely to be impacted most.

Jem Bendell, a Professor in Sustainability Leadership from the UK, published an influential paper, ‘Deep Adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy’. Bendel has proposed four questions that we can consider as we adapt to climate change. These questions focus on four Rs: resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation:

  1. Resilience: what do we most value that we want to keep and how?
  2. Relinquishment: what do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse?
  3. Restoration: what could we bring back to help us with these difficult times?
  4. Reconciliation: with what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual mortality?

These questions are designed to bring some hope in these troubling times and prompt thought at the individual level and the community level about what to do in the face of such enormous issues and existential threats.

Already we have observed some positives in our current COVID-19 crisis. Social services support has finally been increased to above the poverty line, many homeless people have been housed, and we are valuing our essential workers such as nurses, doctors, grocery store workers and postal delivery workers. Cooking at home, exercising more and slowing down can all be big positives for mental and physical wellbeing.

To prevent social collapse associated with increasing disasters, investment in mental health, social cohesion and resilience is increasingly more important.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service at or 1800 512 348.


Fiona Robards is a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the Department of General Practice Westmead and Course Coordinator at the The University of Sydney. She has worked as a psychologist, health service manager, policy analyst and researcher for over 25 years. Her PhD is on how marginalised young people navigate the Australian healthcare system.


  1. Very nice summary, Fiona. Thanks. I’m a big fan of Bendell’s work. The first three Rs in particular.

    I have no truck with his critics who say he’s being ‘too dramatic’ or, even worse, ‘people shouldn’t be saying these sorts of things, it destroys people’s hope’. The simple fact is that despite the ‘good news’ (e.g. falling cost and increasing roll out of renewable energy sources, international agreements such as Paris, and the little more than rhetorical government targets and policies), greenhouse gas emissions may, repeat may, have peaked but certainly aren’t falling (COVID aside); many countries and states (e.g. NSW, Q, Vic, WA here) have plans to produce more coal and gas and keep it going for several decades; there’s no obvious plan to reduce emissions by the necessary at least 7% per year starting now; there’s no obvious plan to tackle the other out of control planetary boundaries (e.g. mass extinction, P & N cycles). Climate action deniers (this includes those who profess to support action but at a pace that is completely inadequate – ‘winning slowly is losing’ – McKibben) in govt and business are either ignorant (unlikely) or malicious and deceitful.

Leave a Reply