The 2017 floods in Australia’s New South Wales has left the state facing a potential epidemic of mental health problems, say researchers. They’re urging the government to support long-term mental health and community services for flood-affected residents.
Thousands of households were displaced by floods which left them highly vulnerable to mental health problems, said Professor James Bennett-Levy, co-author of a recent study led by the University Centre for Rural Health. Marginalized communities, including people living with disabilities and their care providers, were found to be particularly at risk, reports Prevention Web.
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People who remained displaced six months after the floods had double the probability of reporting continuing distress and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression compared to those who were briefly displaced.
Noting that extreme weather events disproportionately affect those least equipped to weather them, senior researcher Dr. Veronica Matthews said 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,” she said. In the Lismore township, located in the northeast corner of NSW, a whopping 82% of flood victims came from such groups, which include the poor, the Indigenous, and the disabled.
University Centre researcher Jodie Bailie added that disabled people and their care providers were “more likely than others to have their home flooded, be evacuated, and experience lengthy displacement,” making crucial health care and social services difficult to access for them.
People with disabilities “will take longer to recover from weather-related disasters and require longer-term tailored supports during that period,” said Baile, urging policy-makers to “intentionally resource disabled people’s organizations to enable person-centred emergency preparedness tailored to people’s local flood risk, living situation, and other support needs, to increase choice and control during recovery.”
Such a move is long overdue, she said, noting that the current vulnerability of the disabled and their caregivers “is further increased because they have not been systematically included in community-level disaster preparedness.”
Adding to the distress of those displaced is the increased possibility of contracting a mosquito-borne disease like the Ross River and Barmah Forest viruses, which can cause debilitating joint pain, fatigue, and other symptoms for weeks after infection.
Mathematical modeling by the University Centre for Rural Health found that the February 2019 flash flooding in Queensland unsettled mosquito habitat, leading to peak viral infections about 90 days after the flood waters receded.
With their data on the mental health impacts of the 2017 floods in hand, the University Centre researchers are calling for disaster recovery programs to be funded and designed to support the long-term healing of communities, not just the acute needs that are apparent right after a natural disaster happens.
Keeping displacement times to a minimum, and actively nurturing feelings of engagement and support in communities—especially for those traditionally marginalized—will be critical.
The researchers also recommended rapid resolution of insurance claims, noting that disputes or denials were clearly linked with “ongoing distress and depression.”