The 'insidious' impact bushfire smoke has on our minds


22 Feb


During the height of the bushfire crisis, when cities and towns became blanketed in a thick smoke, concerns regarding our respiratory health were at the forefront of public conversation.


Although the smoke may have cleared, some experts are warning that bushfire smoke impacted more than just our lungs and as the recovery effort begins, a focus on mental health should remain a focus.


According to expert and architect Jan Golembiewski, the environment can impact mental health in two ways.

The first is through chemicals that enter our system and directly affect the brain.

"These toxins are in very small quantities in bushfire smoke, and are unlikely to make much psychological impact," Mr Golembiewski told nine.com.au.

"The other mechanism is more insidious and it's through the perceptual pathways.

"Unlike toxicology, this effect is far more personal and depends entirely on who you are and on your life situation."

Mr Golembiewski said smoke can send strong and often overwhelming messages about the extent of the fires and our ability to control them.

"[People] might feel there's very little they can do about it, even as the things they care about - the environment, the sea, the country, the animals, the forests, homes, friends' homes and friends - all suffer and die."

"These messages are tough. They create feelings of disempowerment, isolation and anxiety. And it's messages like these that set the stage for mental illness.

"It ultimately comes down to our ability or inability to cope and when our inability to cope becomes chronic, that most certainly leads to mental illness."

Mr Golembiewski says the mental strains of bushfire smoke are not entirely separate from the physical strains and it is often the two combined that can trigger anxiety or depressive behaviour.

"If you can't deal with your body, it's much harder to deal with your emotions," he said.

"And if you fail to cope with your mental load, you can often develop delusions which can lead to psychosis."

With the most recent bushfires indicative of broader trends showing longer and more extreme fire seasons, Mr Golembiewski said the conditions will take their toll.

"If we see these kinds of fires year in and year out, we're going to see a huge influx of people presenting with mental illness."

Tessa Anderssen from ReachOut Australia said there was a noticeable influx of young people seeking help for mental illness during and after the bushfire crisis.

"Young people have shared how they are worried about the smoke affecting their health, how the smell of smoke is in their clothes and hair, and feeling scared, hopeless, irritable and stressed," she told nine.com.au.

"What we know is that young people are having conversations specifically about smoke from the bushfires in our online peer support forums. They are saying it's having a negative impact on things like their mood and relationships," she said.

Mr Golembiewski said the bushfire crisis coinciding with the summer holiday period can further exacerbate the mental toll on some people.

"The summer is an opportunity to let go and have fun and forget about the stress and that experience is really important recovery time but if we get fires year in and year out there will be a major mental health affect," he said.

"If we lose that time, that reinforces our lack of ability to cope emotionally because everything becomes very taxing. On that level we're likely to see an increase in mental illness.

"All of these things form a complied narrative – it's about the dust, it's about the burnt leaves that fall from the sky and land on your garden, it's about your favourite holiday place incinerated, it's the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves and that can be extremely damaging."

But Mr Golembiewski said people shouldn't be alarmed.

"The brain is much like the body, if you damage it, it can recover. You can have a period of high anxiety and you can even have a minor breakdown and you can recover because the brain has a capacity to recover."

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