What do we know about the mental health impacts of drought?
Date: April 1, 2021
Author: Tuyen Thi Luong, PhD student, Centre for Resources Health and Safety (CRHS), University of Newcastle
In recent years, Australia has experienced a series of natural disasters from extensive drought periods (1997-2009, known as the Millennium drought) to the worst bushfire season (2019-2020, known as Black Summer) and more recently to heavy rainfall causing floods in many parts of the country. Besides the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of these disasters, we also need to understand the mental health effects, especially as these types of extreme climate events are expected to continue into the future. Mental health and wellbeing are strongly connected to an individual’s ability to adapt to adversity, so understanding these effects are essential if we are to adapt to natural disasters.
A recent study presented at the AGU Fall Meeting 2020 (confex.com) in December 2020 provides new insights into the relationship between drought and mental health and suggests some key points for what we should do in future research.
The most unique finding of this research is that someone’s psychological response to drought does not always follow a simple path. Rather than prolonged drought simply leading to negative mental health outcomes, the observed relationship is more complicated. The research found what we call a “non-linear effect”, where people exposed to drought experienced an initial increase of psychological distress (in some cases lasting for the first 2-3 years of drought), with the distress lessening to its pre-drought level after time. However, factors such as low satisfaction with life continued to increase as drought persisted. This suggests that while people tend to adapt to their environment as drought continues, this does not necessarily mean that they display positive mental health, as other indicators continue to worsen.
Perhaps the overwhelming message here is that the mental health response of individuals, families and communities to drought varies and cannot always be predicted. Some studies have discussed a number of personal, social and contextual factors that moderates the relationship between drought and how well people adapt to it, but overall, this relationship remains poorly understood. Having a better understanding of what helps some people ‘get by’ during periods of drought, while others continue to struggle, is fundamental to building future drought adaptation programs.
Tuyen Thi Luong is a PhD student at the Centre for Resources Health and Safety (CRHS), University of Newcastle