Professor Helen Berry is the inaugural Professor of Climate Change and Mental Health at the University of Sydney and holds the first such appointment in the world. She is a pioneer in the field and first took an interest in how these fields might intersect while undertaking postdoctoral work at the Australian National University’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health.
Professor Berry says it is widely accepted that climate change is one of the world’s leading health risks, but still finds stigma in the field as it relates to mental health.
‘Climate change is increasing the frequency and ferocity of weather-related extremes. This means more people are being exposed to catastrophic events that might result in them losing their homes or their businesses, suffering environmental damage or even loss of life.
‘My work focuses on how the frequency and ferocity of these activities contribute to mental health and, perhaps more importantly, why the links between climate change and mental health run deep and dark.’
She says that climate change, with the possible exception of anxiety about climate change itself, does not tend to directly cause mental health problems or create new disorders. But its effects do exacerbate and even create risk by creating instability in the social and physical environments in which people work and live.
‘Certain groups suffer disproportionate risk according to their place-based, social and political resources, all of which interact. Climate change exacerbates that risk because it is more likely to affect those who are living with disadvantage to begin with. Climate change-related weather events can lead to profound, long-term effects on mental health – not just on individuals but on communities and the fabric that holds that community together.’
She draws on the example of the 2011 Queensland floods.
‘We conducted a study that showed those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds were twice as likely as their less disadvantaged peers to have their homes and businesses flooded.
‘We saw that people in those areas were more likely to be affected by the flood in the first place. Then, if their important places were flooded, such as their home or the home of someone close to them, they were much more likely to experience trauma as a result of the floods.
‘You get this perfect storm that can have significant ramifications for people’s mental health.’
She says the ways to mitigate risks to mental health associated with climate change include building social connections, developing resources and services to help cope with the events as they happen, and ensuring preparedness among communities that are at high risk.
‘The science is now there that we can make informed predictions about which risks are most likely in which communities, and how high these risk are. We could already be working, community by community, to develop adaptation plans. Doing this would also help mitigation, and have all sorts of other benefits for health and wellbeing. I think Australia as a country is just playing catch up in terms of what it’s willing do about climate change and managing those impacts.’
In November Professor Berry will present at the College’s ASM on the work she does and what it might mean in the context of emergency medicine. Fittingly, the theme for this year’s conference is the changing climate of emergency medicine.
‘It’s a really interesting space, and I think what you find is probably emergency medicine is at the frontline of the trauma experienced by people due to climate change. There is a great deal of crossover with the work I am doing and I will look to explore that at the ASM.’
This year’s ACEM ASM will be held in Hobart from 17 to 21 November. The theme is ‘the changing climate of emergency medicine’.
Earlybird registrations are available until 16 August.
Find the full program and register on the ASM website.