Building resilience to the mental health impacts of climate change in rural Australia

1 May 2023
Climate anxiety and the mental health and well-being impacts of extreme weather-related events are of growing concern globally. In Australia, rural communities in particular are dealing with unprecedented drought, fires and floods every few weeks. The mental health and well-being impacts of such climate change induced events are numerous. However, little is known about what promotes the resilience of rural communities to these impacts.

By Dr Jo Longman, Ms Maddy Braddon, Dr Blanche Verlie, Prof David Schlosberg, Ms Lisa Hampshire, Associate Professor Catherine Hawke, Ms Anna Noonan and Dr Emily Saurman.

The problem

Changes in the climate—including increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather-related events—affect health. The mental health and well-being effects include everything from depression to suicidality, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, emotional distress and exacerbation of existing acute mental illnesses. 

In addition, the broad anxiety, distress, loss of ontological security, and disruptions to identity and connections to place caused by climate change have been popularly labelled as ‘eco-anxiety’, ‘climate anxiety’, and ‘pre-traumatic stress’—amongst other terms.

To date the literature on the mental health impacts of climate change has focused on how individuals respond. Therapeutic interventions generally also focus on pathologizing climate anxiety, and viewing it as an individual’s problem or challenge, rather than viewing climate anxiety as a natural human response to a collective crisis. Such approaches also often miss the wider context and shared experience of climate change, for example the shared trauma of a community experiencing an extreme weather-related event or the shared sense of existential threat that climate change can provoke.

Some populations are significantly more at risk. Of particular relevance in Australia are rural communities, where climate impacts threaten to exacerbate the health and social disadvantage already experienced in rural locations in comparison to urban ones. 

The study 

This paper presents insights from an empirical, qualitative study which collected data from online workshops with groups of rural Australians. The study explored what participants perceived to be effective at building resilience to the mental health impacts of climate change, and the necessary components of success for community resilience-building.


Participants described a wide range of activities, programs and initiatives they perceived as building resilience. They prioritized the need for three types of community action:

  1. the provision of general community-led support 
  2. community-focused climate action, including inclusive and democratic resilience and adaptation planning, and 
  3. collective politically-focused climate action.

Study participants described how community-led collective action and planning, which strengthens social and relational capital, engenders feelings of belonging and increases informal social connectedness. In turn this helps address the mental health and well-being impacts of climate change, while simultaneously supporting communities to prepare for those impacts.

The study illustrates that the design of strategies to mitigate the mental health and well-being risks from climate change may benefit from a move beyond an individual health focus to community-led and implemented collective actions that build community networks.

Read the article: ‘Building resilience to the mental health impacts of climate change in rural Australia’, published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health.

Jo Longman is a Senior Research Fellow at the University Centre for Rural Health based in Lismore NSW and an SEI member part of the Climate disaster and adaptation research theme. She is a social scientist with over 20 years’ experience in qualitative and mixed methods research and evaluation. She is passionate about improving the health of people living in rural Australia. Since catastrophic flooding in the Northern Rivers area of NSW in 2017, she has been researching the mental health impacts of flooding, and climate change more broadly.  She is currently involved in a qualitative project exploring communities’ self-organising following disaster.

Maddy Braddon is a Community Fellow at the University Centre for Rural Health, Lismore and a member of the Sydney Environment Institute. She 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.

Blanche Verlie is a Lecturer at the University of Wollongong, and a member of the 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.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. His work focuses on contemporary environmental and environmental justice movements, environment and everyday life, and climate adaptation planning and policy. His books include Defining Environmental Justice and Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life.

Lisa Hampshire is an Educational Designer for the University of Sydney School of Rural Health. For twelve years she was a student-facing Lecturer in Communication, Arts and Journalism at Western Sydney University (The College) and Charles Sturt University. She has decades of media experience as an ABC broadcaster and journalist, giving her unique insight into delivering rural medical education as part of the Sydney Medical Programme. 

Catherine Hawke is Head of Clinical School for the School of Rural Health Dubbo/Orange at the University of Sydney. She has a long history of teaching and research with the School of Rural Health, originally joining in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Rural Health in Orange and in 2017 she was appointed to the role of Deputy Head of School. In addition to her role at the School, Professor Hawke is involved in rural health policy and workforce development at state and national levels. She is passionate about building both the rural health workforce and rural research capacity and capability and is committed to working to reduce inequalities through education, research, and partnerships. She is a founding Chair and now Co-chair of the Western NSW Health Research Network (WHRN), formed in 2013, the peak body for health research in western NSW.

Anna Noonan is a PhD Candidate and researcher in the Faculty of Medicine and Health and a Business Development Manager in Cultural Competence at the University of Sydney. Her thesis explores equity and accessibility challenges facing rural NSW women seeking abortions.

Emily Saurman is the Senior Research Fellow - Rural Health at the Broken Hill University Department of Rural Health (BHUDRH), University of Sydney and Director of Research for the Broken Hill Centre for Remote Health Research. Dr Saurman's work focuses on service-and policy- relevant research and evaluation in access to health services including digital health, mental health, palliative care, and primary health care for rural and remote populations. Her expertise is in mixed method and qualitative study design with particular focus and interests in access, ethics, and rurality.

Header image: 2011 Brisbane floods by Maythee Voran via Shutterstock ID: 612635576.

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