A flood of emotions: Climate anxiety and trauma in Australia

In the aftermath of devastating climate disasters like Australia’s recent east-coast floods, how do communities – those at the centre of the crisis and those on the periphery – support each other emotionally during times of climate distress?

While we've known about the mental health impacts of climate disasters for some time now, the loss and trauma that follows floods and bushfires is beginning to intersect with the anxiety of knowing the next disaster may not be so far away.

As these crises mount, professional mental health services play a critical role. Yet local service providers are increasingly being impacted by climate change themselves, reducing their capacity to support communities when they need it most.

In this critical conversation, hear from climate emotions experts and residents of Lismore. We bring together the latest research and on-the-ground perspectives about how we collectively grapple with the emotional impacts and long emergency of the climate crisis.

This event was presented online on 21 April, 2022 in collaboration with Sydney Environment Institute.

[Update 21 April 2022] Bhiamie Williamson (ANU) was to speak at this event but has had to unfortunately withdraw and we wish him well. We're pleased that Samuel Savage from Red Cross is able to step in and share his insights with us.

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The speakers

Maddy is a Lismore resident and community leader whose work focuses on climate justice and building community resilience. She co-founded Lismore Helping Hands (now Resilient Lismore), a grassroots community-led recovery effort after the 2017 flood which was largely successful because of the established Gasfield Free Northern Rivers network. Resilient Lismore, and Maddy, have been at the forefront of the community-led emergency and recovery effort in the Northern Rivers during the floods of 2022. 

Maddy has an Environmental Science degree from Southern Cross University. Maddy has worked as a Research Assistant at the University Centre for Rural Health, including on research projects exploring the mental health impacts of climate change on rural communities, and strategies for building community resilience. 

Maddy has also worked at Lock The Gate Alliance where she helped on campaigns to transition away from fossil fuels. Maddy’s passion for regional communities comes from spending much of her life moving between small towns in rural NSW. Her approach to change-making stems from a growing understanding that we share common experiences and skills that unite us in the face of adversity.

James has lived in Northern NSW for 30 years, and has been Associate Professor (2008-2015), then Professor (2015-present) at the University of Sydney's University Centre for Rural Health, based in Lismore. He trained as a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, and practised as a clinician in the UK and Australia for 18 years before undertaking a PhD.

He has co-authored five top selling books for psychotherapists and has taught in 26 countries. James has many publications across a variety of domains. These include: mental health impacts of northern NSW floods, Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing, neuropsychology, psychotherapy research, and 20 years of theory and research on the training of psychotherapists and other health professionals. 

You can read about the research of the UCRH team - including James - on the mental health impacts of the 2017 Lismore floods, and James' insights about how to reduce flood survivors vulnerability to PTSD.

Aidan is a resident of North Lismore and was directly impacted by the recent mega flood event in Lismore. Aidan also participated in civilian rescue at the peak of the emergency. 

Aidan’s usual role is as an author, academic, educator and social change trainer. 

Aidan most recently has completed a PhD applying complexity ideas to community organisation. 

Sam Savage is a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man who respects, practices, and promotes his diverse cultures to his family and broader communities throughout Australia. Born and raised in Townsville and having cultural ties to the Townsville region as a descendant of the Birrigubba Nation, Sam respects and acknowledges his connection to country and also valuing his father’s Torres Strait Islander connection to country on Mauar (Rennell Island) in the Torres Straits. Learning about family kinships, traditional healing, traditional hunting practices, traditional cooking, respecting spiritual dreaming, totems, caring for country is an important focus area for Sam that he appreciates every day.

Having over 30 years working in various government and community sectors such as education, housing, employment, natural resource management, youth justice and child protection, Sam has strived to change mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors towards First Nations peoples within systems and communities.

Sam's current role is Northern Queensland Emergency Services Regional Coordinator where he works in the Emergency Services sector with Australian Red Cross at a regional, state & national level. Sam assists in the coordination of community resilience, response, and recovery programs to care for communities with a focus on Psychosocial support. Sam is the current 'Chairperson' of the Australian Red Cross National First Nations Recovery Group and a member of the Australian Red Cross National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Team. Sam recently has become a member of the National Taskforce for Creative Recovery - a cross-industry collaboration that brings together key influencers in disaster management, mental health, government, and the arts to forge pathways for new thinking in response to the unprecedented challenges being faced by communities.

Jeanti St Clair (she/her/hers) tells stories through audio, both as documentaries and audio walks. She lives in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales and is a lecturer at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, where she teaches media and journalism. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong and is also an associate producer with Soundtrails.

Jeanti created the Lismore Flood Stories project, originally to document the 2017 floods. However, in light of events this year, she has now opened the website to become a portal for all Lismore flood documentation projects with the aim that community, researchers, media and policymakers can better understand the impact of climate disasters on regional communities.

Blanche is a multidisciplinary social scientist whose work focuses on climate change and a member of Sydney Environment Institute. Her research investigates how people understand, experience, and respond to climate change, and how we might do this differently and better.

Blanche's work focuses specifically on the ways climate change is felt, lived and imagined, such as the often visceral experiences of climate distress, and the unequal and unjust dimensions of this, as well as how this affective injustice can inspire regenerative forms of climate action.

Her book Learning to live with climate change: From anxiety to transformation is available free online.


Crisis support

  • Lifeline: lifeline.org.au or 13 11 14
  • National Indigenous Critical Response Service: 1800 805 801

Mental health

  • Beyond Blue: coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au or 1800 512 348
  • Black Dog Institute: blackdoginstitute.org.au
  • Strong & Deadly Futures https://strongdeadly.org.au/
  • Head to Health: headtohealth.gov.au
  • Mind Spot: mindspot.org.au
  • This Way Up: thiswayup.org.au

For children and youth

  • Kids helpline: kidshelpline.com.au or 1800 55 
  • Headspace: headspace.org.au or 1800 650 890

Image credit: Image by Kathie Nichols, via Shutterstock ID: 68153113

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