Growing up in the UK I really had no idea about natural disasters until I moved to Far North Queensland as a junior doctor. There, I went through cyclone Larry, and later, though we were away at the time, feared for our home during cyclone Yasi.
In 2011 we moved to Tasmania and I started work in the Huon Valley, where we also lived. In the summer of 2013 we stayed anxiously in our home as ash fell from the sky and the glow of the fire front over the ridge looked like a weird sunset in the north. We lived deep in a valley with only one road in and I remember the palpable fear in the community hall when we all packed in to a briefing from the local fire service. My patients and I were largely experiencing the same concerns and often there was back and forth sharing of information in consultations. The Tas Alert website was constantly open on my desktop.
By the 2018/19 fire season I was now living in Hobart and working in Kingston, a suburban centre just north of the Huon Valley. During the fires that season the sky was heavy with smoke day after day. My 3 year old described it as ‘spooky’. I started to see many patients who had been displaced from their homes, or had evacuated family members sheltering with them. Many patients, even well outside of the directly impacted area, experienced insomnia and heightened anxiety. Older patients who had been through the severe ’67 bushfires talked of flashbacks in response to the smoke.
In the 18 months since the fires I have continued to see patients affected by their experiences during that time, or by the social and economic consequences of the fires.
My experience of these natural disasters, combined with an understanding of the evidence that climate change is driving increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, has led me to join Doctors for the Environment Australia and to start engaging in public advocacy on climate action as a health issue. It has also led me to co-found an organisation called Climate Resilience Network which seeks to equip mental health professionals and our local community with an understanding of the mental health impacts of climate change and strategies to respond.
Due to climate change we will be seeing an increasing number of our patients affected by extreme weather events and many of us will be impacted by events ourselves. We need to be prepared to respond in ways that can help the communities we are part of and I was grateful to access the training resources created by Phoenix.