“The little one seems OK because he’s only six,” says Fina, speaking to South African photographer Gideon Mendel. “But Christian is having issues. He gets very angry and then he’s anxious. He’s been really sad in the last few weeks.” Fina and her family narrowly escaped death in New South Wales, Australia after devastating fires in 2019-20 now known nationally as Black Summer. The fires burned an area equivalent to Syria. Last week Australia officially declared El Niño conditions, and the country is now bracing for another round of major blazes: fire danger ratings in the southern part of the country have been raised to “catastrophic”.
Fina’s husband Anthony described their fire to Mendel as “a monster; it was racing as fast as my van would go […] the noise sounded like a couple of freight trains. It was sucking air in from all directions. It was a fire-breathing dragon, spitting hot flames everywhere.” The couple got their two young kids out. “I don’t have one photo left to show my children what their grandmother looked like,” Anthony says. “I don’t have photos of my childhood or anything I’ve done as a teenager. It’s like I’ve never existed.” Returning to their home, they found nothing but the remains of an engorged bonfire long dead, piles of ash woven through with wires and melted plastic, blackened posts jutting out like ribs.
The flames of modern-day wildfires move quickly, then die. So does our attention; the news cycle flares up around natural disasters, but soon it’s on to the next. Yet for those left in the ashes, recovery can take years, if not lifetimes. Tom, or as he’s known locally, Swampy Tom, is another New South Wales resident. His house was in the path of the same blaze as Fina and Anthony’s. He was involved in a support centre for survivors. “We might have lost property,” he told Mendel, “but there are people out there who are traumatised forever.”We tend to think of wildfires as physical events, but their psychological effects are equally devastating – and we have a growing body of data to prove it. As well as being Australia’s most costly natural disaster, the Black Summer bushfires in which Fina, Anthony and Swampy Tom lost their homes has also been one of the most researched – and researchers have paid meaningful attention to its mental health impacts. In 2022, the Australian National University found widespread depression, anxiety and stress amongst its victims even 18 months after the event; three-quarters of people indirectly affected by the fires were struggling with anxiety a full two years later. The situation was even worse for Aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islander people, especially Indigenous women, though interestingly these groups had more resilience and coping strategies. A fifth of those directly affected met the clinical threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children who were affected had more behavioural and emotional issues than those who weren’t.
This problem is only going to get worse. This year saw the largest wildfires in recorded European history, with more major blazes breaking out in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, the last of which saw people running into the ocean to survive. Across the Atlantic, Canada and the west coast of the US have seen wildfire carnage in recent years. Hawaii’s recent blazes, too, from which some residents escaped through tunnels of swirling flame, left many towns decimated, among them Lahaina, the pre-colonial capital of the Hawaiian kingdom.
Mendel, who describes himself as a “struggle photographer”, just returned from Greece, where he took portraits with people in their destroyed homes after rescue workers had left. When he photographs people, it is “often the first time they’ve spoken properly about what happened to them,” says Mendel, speaking to Novara. “Sifting through the wreckage to find something they recognise, like a toy car for a child, is often a strangely cathartic experience. That strange thing of dealing with absence.”
View this post on Instagram
The best that victims of wildfires get are temporary hotels and short-term rentals, and even then only if they’re lucky. They usually receive no psychological support, even in the short term. These people have had near-death experiences, often suffered physical injury, lost loved ones, all their possessions, communities and economic security. This has major mental health consequences, but it’s only just starting to be examined.
“Even up to five years ago this wasn’t a recognised field,” says Jyoti Mishra, co-director of the University of California’s climate change and mental health initiative, speaking to Novara Media on Zoom. The last few years have seen a few amazing projects enter this vacuum, including the Connecting Climate Minds coalition, Imperial College’s Climate Cares team and the Climate Mental Health Network. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and World Health Organisation are starting to pay attention, too, as are some organisations like the meditation app Headspace, which this week published a survey finding that more than half of Australian teens fear for their futures because of climate change. Mishra and her colleagues investigate how often and how badly people’s minds are damaged by the flames. She tells me that their studies in California show that mental health issues are up to three times as prevalent in survivors, something true up to a year after the event – “specifically”, she says showing up in a cognitive inability “to suppress distractions in our environment.”
“Everything is perceived as a threat, even when they’re normal day-to-day distractions. The brain is in a hyper-aroused state” – a response characteristic of PTSD. “The fight-or-flight response is okay [when] something life-threatening [is happening] in front of you, but up to a year out is not normal.” According to a recent journal article, wildfires can lead to levels of PTSD as severe as those observed in war veterans.
We have to move beyond thinking about mental health issues as just atomised biological glitches in the brain. Modern psychiatry, and disaster response agencies, still operate using this framing. It is a dangerous and individualistic approach that leaves people stranded. As I’ve written before for Novara Media, and as I write in my recent book Spinning Out, our mental health is contingent on the state of the world we live in and what is done to us, powerfully driven by social, economic and ecological forces. The impacts of climate shocks on our mental health are multitudinous, and we’re continually uncovering more. We now know that even the particulate matter in wildfire smoke has deleterious effects on cognitive function: a University of Oxford study in the British Journal of Psychiatry revealed that poor air quality contributes to developmental problems for children and adolescents, depression, anxiety, PTSD and possibly dementia.
Governments are failing to equip their citizens to weather the coming storm, whether practically or psychologically. Into the void, a collection of innovative community responses have sprung up. This is perhaps fitting, because when it comes to wildfires and mental health, community is one of the strongest tools of all.
‘The grief is collective, so the healing should be as well.’
Disaster responses largely succeed or fail on the strength of community networks. Dr Elaine Flores is a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her work indicates that communities with a higher level of resilience, a more embedded sense of community and togetherness, are generally better at responding to climate shocks – practically and emotionally. Mutual aid groups on the Greek island of Evia saved communities in the face of July’s fires. On the west coast of the US, community eco-therapy is helping wildfire survivors reconnect with places they’ve lost. Outfits like Big Chico run community workshops to reconnect people with the land and each other after fires. Their work helps close the loop of trauma, readdressing the precise cause of people’s mental health challenges, together.
It’s well-documented that spending healing time in nature can reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels, enhance immune system function and improve mood, focus and creativity. It’s also, importantly, a bonding exercise. As Chico State’s Ecotherapy Program Manager Blake Ellis tells me in an email: “Communal responses provide an alternative approach within our hyper-individualized society by recognizing that relationships are what help make us happy, healthy, and resilient. Catastrophic wildfires often cause loss of life and displacement, which disrupts social support systems and leaves individuals feeling isolated. The grief is collective, so the healing should be as well.”
Traditionally, firefighters have health coverage, including support for mental health issues they might encounter. Community firefighters don’t, even though they’re usually in the area for much longer, sorting through the physical and mental wreckage. By and large, these leaders are left only with one another.
“There’s this notion that first responders are only of a certain kind,” Mishra says, “but there are a lot of community people who are first responders.” With extreme fires set to increase by almost a third by 2050, and gaping holes in state provision, it looks likely that these “community people” will be the ones leading the fight for survival.