“It feels like Groundhog Day. I wake up and it rains, dark and cold, over and over again.”
Rebecca Gray feels like it’s been raining all year in Sydney, Australia. She’s not far off.
The city has experienced around 170 rainy days so far in 2022 – there have been more rainy than dry days. And with almost a quarter of the year still to go, Sydney broke its annual rainfall record last month.
“It’s not like we just crept in,” said Tom Saunders, meteorologist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “The record was erased. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
More than 2.3m (7.5ft) of rain has fallen on the city – triple the annual average in London.
It was similar in the other eastern states of Australia. Repeated, widespread flooding in all four areas has left thousands of homes uninhabitable and killed more than 30 people this year. Just last week, two people died when towns in west-central New South Wales (NSW) went under water.
The Bureau of Meteorology says the weather is driven by several phenomena, including the La Nina pattern, which increases the likelihood of rain and cyclones in Australia.
It has warned that more dangerous months lie ahead. With catchments already soaking wet, downpours could trigger more widespread flooding for eastern and northern Australia.
Killing the “national mood”
Australia often boasts of having warm, sunny beach weather all year round. But this year the country looked more like humid Singapore or rainy Cardiff.
Many Australians – like Ms Gray – feel it dampens their spirits.
“Some days I just don’t want to get out of bed,” she says, adding that because of the rain, meeting friends is much more tiring, exercise is only possible indoors, hanging laundry on a line is basically impossible, and the house feels constantly damp.
“It looks like we have a new interior designer who really loves wet clothes and black mold.”
Even the dog is over it, she says.
The weather is weighing on “the mood of the country,” says researcher and clinical psychologist Kim Felmingham.
There are the biological effects: cloudy weather blocks sunlight, lowers serotonin — the body’s happy hormone — and interferes with sleep.
Then there’s the behavioral effect: Rain can discourage people from getting outside and engaging in activities that give them a sense of well-being, accomplishment or social connection, says Prof Felmingham.
“All of these factors reinforce each other. When you have truly relentless rain, we have clear evidence that mood and energy levels plummet and can sometimes create feelings of frustration, loneliness or boredom,” he adds.
A popular sound becomes a “trigger”
But many people are more than just annoyed and sad. They are also exhausted and traumatized.
When the worst floods on record hit the town of Lismore in February, Naomi Worrall was lucky enough to escape with her life. She had to wait for hours alone and terrified on her roof for the deluge.
“When the rain stopped at all, there was just enough that you could hear little screams coming from the houses,” she says. “I thought I listened to people drowning.”
Four people died, and when the city flooded again just a month later, a fifth drowned.
The city is so tense these days that even light rain showers can send waves of fear through it, says Ms Worrall.
“The sound of rain on the roof is an Australian comfort. Everyone loves that sound. And if there’s one thing I’ve heard almost everyone talk about, it’s the sadness they feel because one of their favorite sounds has been turned into a trigger. “
‘Where next – and who next?’
The last two years of dramatic flooding have been followed by record-breaking bushfires and droughts. While Australia has always been a land of extremes, experts say climate change is making these phenomena worse and more common.
It’s leading to a mental health crisis, health experts warn.
“People don’t get a chance to recover in between,” says clinical psychiatrist Cybele Dey, a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. “And for people who have experienced multiple disasters, it’s not just the sum of the effects… it’s compounding.”
A survey conducted ahead of several disasters in 2020 found that about 55% of the population said they had direct experience of at least one disaster. That number is likely to have grown since then.
The same study also found that one in four respondents showed clinical signs of post-traumatic stress. And about one in ten people had developed what psychologists call “environmental anxiety” — heightened feelings of distress or fear for the future of the planet.
“Even if you are not directly affected by these events, you know someone [who is]or witness some really tangible effects from them,” says Prof Felmingham.
dr Dey says these findings are reflected in the stories she hears from colleagues: more and more people are coming to her with significant concerns about climate change.
And she believes that trend is only going to increase: “Children born now can expect to experience several times more fossil fuel-related disasters than their grandparents.”
Build mental resilience
Improving Australia’s psychological resilience to disasters will be crucial, argues Dr. dey
People who prepare for disasters – by making evacuation plans, for example – tend to experience less stress and recover faster than those who don’t, Australian Red Cross research shows.
Training in mental health first aid, seeking support from people with similar experiences, and channeling stress into something productive can also be helpful, says Dr. dey
But stronger government action on climate change would also significantly improve people’s well-being, she says. “They can see that their need is important and that action is being taken,” she says. “People need to be able to see reason for hope.”
Meanwhile, Ms Worrall tries to make peace with the rain, including by planting flowers.
“I try to remind myself that rain is essential and a good thing,” she says. “It can’t be an enemy forever.”