Bushfires NSW: The Impact On Mental Health & Wellbeing

The 2019 New South Wales bushfire season has brought the realities of crisis and catastrophe to the forefront of the Australian consciousness. Australians are used to bushfires, but what is different to this crisis is the duration, the impact on huge population centres, and the context these bushfire’s are occurring – within one of Australia’s worst recorded droughts and climate change anxiety.

In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, the smoke haze has made the skies look like ‘Armageddon’. Sports events have been cancelled, outdoor activities postponed, and people are being sent home from work. The bushfires are having an impact on the daily activities of everyone, not least those who are in active bushfire threat zones.

What is less documented is the impact the New South Wales Bushfires are having on the anxiety and mental health of Australians.

Mental Health Impact of Bushfires

Emergency mental health services report an increase in contact to their services during periods of crisis. This has been the same during the the New South Wales Bushfire crisis, with psychologists anecdotally reporting an increase in requests for immediate sessions. 

Psychologists are also reporting that their clients are increasingly discussing the impact of the bushfires on their lives, directly relating the crisis to an increase in their experience of anxiety.

Updated: the scale of the December 2019 and January 2020 bushfires in NSW and Victoria have increased significantly. In response, we have released a new article that addresses vicarious trauma (and what you can do to recognise it in loved ones) – click here to read ‘#AustraliaBushfires – The Surprising Impact Of The Bushfire Crisis On Large Populations’.

New South Wales Bushfires and Anxiety

The New South Wales Bushfires are creating an atmosphere of heightened anxiety. Whole populations are experiencing more daily worry – worry for the fires threatening homes, worry for the lives lost, worry for animals killed, reminders of the drought, worry for farmers and worry about climate change. 

On top of these generalised worries, the New South Wales Bushfires are having an impact on daily living, because of hazardous smoke haze in population centres, bringing the crisis much closer to home. 

People are having to adjust their activities on a daily basis, and for a prolonged period.

This is directly causing stress and anxiety. 

For those whose mental health is generally positive, the bushfires are causing an added stress to their already busy lives, with less opportunities to self-care (less outdoor leisure activities), less exercise and more worry about the health impacts of breathing smoke, leading to an increase in day-to-day discomfort. Over a prolonged period, this begins to take a toll on people’s resilience. People start to become more irritable, angry and less tolerant. 

For those who are already prone to anxiety, the bushfires are a likely trigger for increases in symptoms including:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • restlessness
  • feelings of fatigue
  • increased general worry
  • feeling tense
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling unable to cope
  • being more reactive
  • heightened emotionality

This, coupled with less opportunities for self-care (less time to exercise, less leisure activities), leads to an increase in presentations to psychological services for those with anxiety.

How To Effectively Cope With The NSW Bushfires & Strategies To Help Maintain Mental Health & Wellbeing

People are recommended to be aware that the bushfires constitute a real additional stressor to their lives, even if they are not in any immediate threat. Just as with any other stressors (like workplace, relationship or financial stress), it is important to take stock of the impact of the stress, and have some strategies for stress reduction. 

As mental health professionals, we always recommend that you speak about your stress. Whether it is with family, friends, or with a professional, talking about your stress is a healthy way to manage them.

Remember that the bushfires are heightening existing stressors, and so you may not even talk about the bushfires directly, but about your other stressors. 

Secondly, make deliberate plans to self-care.

If you normally enjoy a walk or an outdoor activity, don’t just resign yourself to a wasted day at home because of the smoke. Use the opportunity to think of a new indoor activity that might be enjoyable, or an activity that you don’t normally do – like having a home cooked meal with friends, or going to the exhibition that you would normally overlook. 

Finally, some people will feel better by doing something actively to address the bushfire crisis. This might be by donating to bushfire appeals, or volunteering their time. This gives people a sense of control (by ‘doing something about it), in the face of a crisis that is largely outside of their control.