Have Some Mental Health: The Black Summer Bushfires, COVID-19, and the Governance of Psychic Retreat

By Aaron Neiman, Stanford University §

Introduction: Hard to Process

The events of the recent past have felt increasingly difficult to process. It is a sentiment that one hears more often now, as the events themselves seemingly accelerate in their frequency, their complexity, and their tragicomic absurdity. Inured to mass shootings and powerless to the rise of far-right authoritarianism, the postwar liberal consensus feels like it is coming apart at the seams. At the same time, natural disasters and the environmental toll of human “residue” (Hecht 2018) challenge our ability to reckon with anthropogenic climate change. If there were any doubt about history being on the move, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have done away with it; the world is getting harder to think, and it doesn’t feel good.

The psychic effects of dramatic developments have been fruitful for social thinkers: It has been suggested that the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima forced the public to confront the fact that a fanatical death drive was no longer limited to military, political, or economic projects but had become a permanent fixture of society (Kristeva 1992: 231). Closer to our own time, the victory of reactionary forces and the hollowing out of the welfare state have created a persistent depressive affect and societies that are relentlessly exhausting to live in (Berlant 2011; Cvetkovitch 2012). On the other end of the mood spectrum, the volatility of financial markets and the demand for flexible labor led to a valorization of the bipolar subject’s frenetic energy in popular culture– a new “manic style” (Martin 2000: 15).

This reflexivity is not limited to academia. Recently, the language of “mental health” has emerged as a popular discourse in its own right; an idiom used by the state, business interests, the media, and the laity in everyday language. Used this way, it is not only “mental health” as a new axis of self-improvement and self-care, but as a feature of society and collective experience. It is a discrete thing in the world that exists at the population level and is sensitive to the paroxysms of history through which people live.

COVID-19 has already seen an enormous proliferation of this discourse around the world, due in no small part to the implementation of prolonged social distancing measures. The pandemic will have lasting effects on the way we talk about anxiety, trauma, and day-to-day mental wellbeing. It is likely that in future catastrophic events, the mental health of the people affected will remain an explicit point of media coverage, informal conversation, advertising, and biopolitical intervention. But in Australia, a series of unprecedented bushfires from October to February (known collectively as Black Summer) served as a kind of grim dress rehearsal for the present moment.

A red sun glows over Sydney during Australia’s Black Summer. Photo by author.

Black Summer

An unusually early and aggressive bushfire season brought 2019 to a close and rang in the new decade on Australia’s populous southeastern coast. For days at a time, thick smoke blanketed Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, while the surrounding bushland burned, barely contained. On New Year’s Day, the air in in the capital was the worst on Earth, with the air quality index registering 23 times the hazardous level (Climate Council 2020). For weeks, the news was awash with images so apocalyptic they were almost cartoonish: Melbourne’s Yarra River ran brown, while hail and flash floods raged alongside the blazes; smoke was seen in Perth on the country’s west coast, having completed an entire circuit of the globe. One of the tennis players who opted not to withdraw from the Australian Open collapsed on the court in a coughing fit. According to a widely reported statistic, a billion animals were estimated to have perished, almost always accompanied by stomach-churning photos of severely burned marsupials (Public Radio International 2020).

Meanwhile, Anglophone press seized on the mental health angle. Australian, British, and American news outlets published dozens of stories either featuring or highlighting the psychic toll of not only surviving such an event, but also constant exposure to news about it. “[Australians’] national psyche will change… You’re not only grieving what you lost; you’re grieving for your country,” said a California psychologist quoted in a feature for TIME (Ducharme 2020). Around the same time, NGOs likewise turned their attention to this connection. Nearly all of the several government-funded mental health non-profits created dedicated bushfire landing pages on their websites, directing users to various hotlines, forums, and information sheets.

At Head to Health, the Australian government’s digital mental health portal, bushfire content is moved to the margin to make way for COVID-19 resources. (https://headtohealth.gov.au/covid-19-support/covid-19) Accessed May 4, 2020.

The fires dominated everyday life and conversation, and the public fumed at the rightwing Liberal government’s failure to adequately fund the country’s largely volunteer Rural Fire Service. Conservative media blamed environmentalists for the fires and stoked denialist conspiracy theories, while the Liberal-National Coalition government punted on emission reduction targets— a devastating reminder of the death grip of industrial mining interests on national policy.

The government’s climate denialism and inaction received criticism both at home and abroad (Timms 2020). Former California governor Jerry Brown singled out Australia’s catastrophic failure in late January after the Doomsday Clock was again advanced closer to midnight— a visual representation dating back to the early days of the Atomic Age of the risk of a man-made, civilization-ending catastrophe. Internet memes mocking Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s bungling of the disaster were widely shared. One of the most widespread featured a photo of him in a Hawaiian shirt, after he decided to remain on vacation abroad during the crisis. At trivia nights at my local pub, team names calling “ScoMo” various four-letter words received rapturous cheers when read aloud.

This dynamic played out nationally in a series of highly publicized photos and videos showing Morrison visiting ravaged communities, being shouted and cursed at by desperate locals refusing to shake his hand, before being whisked away by handlers. One incensed and exhausted firefighter became an Internet folk hero when a news clip went viral of him sharing some particularly choice words for the Prime Minister.

 

No Horizon

The discrepancy between a populace watching in horror and a government sitting on its hands created a frustrating tension: at precisely the moment the world reminded everyone, in no uncertain terms, of its deadly seriousness, institutions with power refused to act accordingly. The Black Summer bushfires were a “regime-shifting event” (Petryna 2018) without the regime shift.

The political fallout had as much to do with the Liberal government’s immediate disaster management failures as it did its long-term climate denialism and fanatical commitment to resource extraction. But this was not only a failure to act on the science, to responsibly grapple with the “horizoning work” of runaway wildfire management that might plot a course forward in this accelerating milieu (Petryna 2018). Rather, it was a negation of any horizon at all– a statement that the future of life on the continent was as uncertain as it was unimportant.

But the state made other interventions that were forward-thinking, if only in hindsight. In January, the Bushfire Access Recovery Program was launched, allocating $76 million ($48 million USD) over the course of two years to various mental health services available to any Australian affected by the fires. Mobile Service Centers were set up in the worst affected areas offering free counseling, and social workers were attached to Mobile Servicing Teams to help connect people with psychological services.

Notably, there were also dramatic expansions of existing public mental health programs: 10 therapy sessions would now be covered by Medicare (in addition to the 10 already available), while the referral and diagnosis requirement would be waived— now, anyone who wanted counseling could get it, no questions asked. This ad-hoc approach to public health policy is typical of Australia, whose social services are a complex network of public-private partnerships under short-term funding schemes.

The restriction on allowing video and phone therapy sessions to be billed to Medicare was also lifted— a temporary change that would come to seem prophetic a few months later, though in ways unknowable to policymakers at the time.

 

A Salve

How can we think about the caress of the state (in the form of a relatively swift expansion of psychological services) in light of its abject failure to mitigate the event itself? More relevant to our current crisis, what about events that are met with seemingly good-faith attempts at mitigation, yet elicit the same response?

On some very real level, this was thin gruel for bushfire victims. The provision of essential services to regional and rural towns that already felt justifiably forgotten by metropolitan governance was temporary and disaster-contingent. The program is a poor substitute for a comprehensive climate policy, the construction of lasting mental health infrastructure, and adequate funding for the Rural Fire Service.

Beyond critiques of the rollout, serious questions remain about the advisability and efficacy of the government’s increasing reliance on digital “e-mental health” treatments, including self-guided therapy apps and online courses. These now face their biggest test as social distancing measures force all therapy online in one form or another. But what matters most here is that the state now sees the psychological effects of our current milieu as an appropriate site of life-giving intervention, even as it has a hand in causing them.

Inadequate as they may be, these interventions have real material effects that cannot be written off. They produce new clinical (or para-clinical) encounters, in which ordinary people might find meaningful opportunities to make sense their own interiority and investigate “the ruined state of the world” (Love 2007: 27).

By failing so shamelessly and spectacularly, the state failed to engage with a shared, agreed-upon reality around the urgency of runaway climate change. In fact, it is likely that the inadequacy and absurdity of its response was the subject of at least one therapy session covered under this new scheme. One might imagine, for example, the rural firefighter from the viral video attending his first Skype appointment. He wants to discuss not only the trauma of the blaze, but the maddening feeling of government inaction and his rage at being expected to endanger himself for people who care little about his wellbeing.

While there is little horizoning work to be found here in trying to apprehend the future of climate change, the psychological response to Black Summer did its own important calculus. It enacted a future in which the psychic aftermath of sudden changes to daily life can be attended to by powerful institutions that might otherwise intervene upstream— a kind of non-accountability through care. More specifically, it suggested that the marriage of growing mental health discourse and digitally-mediated treatments might open a new front in the neoliberal “politics of distribution” (Ferguson 2015).

 

Conclusion: COVID-19

While the bushfires raged, of course, a respiratory disaster of another kind was taking shape. One crisis emerged as the other receded, leaving a feeling of whiplash: when SARS-CoV-2 was still a mysterious virus limited to central China, concern was already growing about the supply of P2 masks in Australia depleted by the events of the summer. At a digital mental health industry event in late January, I overheard a group of attendees quip that further plagues were surely on the way now that we had gone through fires, floods, and pestilence.

The early days of the pandemic have seen a further escalation of the same patterns that emerged in Black Summer. Investment in digital mental health has already become a cornerstone of the government’s public health response, and media have understandably doubled down on the mental health beat as anxiety and loneliness intensify.

With all non-emergency care now taking place remotely, telehealth sessions are once again publicly billable as clinicians of all kinds scramble to take their practices online. Head to Health, the government’s interactive digital mental health hub, now defaults to a dedicated COVID-19 tab with links to information and resources. Eerily, links to the bushfire version of the same information are still just below the main menu.

Beyond Blue, one of the largest mental health non-profits in Australia and chaired by former PM Julia Gillard, has been tasked by the federal government to create a Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service to accommodate the influx of hotline calls and forum posts from the worried well and the worried sick. The forums, where I post regularly as a peer support volunteer, are flush with threads about problems big and small, all complicated by the pandemic. The volunteer users who give and get support through the site now constitute one of the largest mental health workforces in the country.

A Black Summer sun in Sydney. Photo by author.

It remains to be seen what further measures will be taken before this is said and done, and which if any of these services will remain after. But Australia is an instructive case for a future in which crises seem likely to continue overlapping and potentiating, stacking upon one another and disrupting life in as-yet-unknown ways.

These crises may vary in the state’s ability and desire to predict or prevent them. But it seems that one of its few remaining responsibilities is to provide at least some means for the public to pick through the mental fallout of increasingly unthinkable events. Although the virus is not as easily laid at the doorstep of the Australian ruling class as the fires of the summer, the responses to both reveal what we might call a retreat of governance into the realm of the psychic— a forfeiting of a more livable future in place of tools for dealing with the tragedy of the present.


Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Colin Hoag for his editorial input, and to the Engagement staff for the opportunity to write this piece. This research is supported by doctoral fieldwork grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ducharme, Jamie. 2020. “As Wildfires Rage, Australia Faces Another Challenge: Protecting National Mental Health.” Time. January 8. Accessed April 18, 2020. https://time.com/5759685/australian-bushfires-mental-health/.

Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2018. “Residue.” Somatosphere (blog). January 8, 2018. http://somatosphere.net/2018/residue.html/.

Kristeva, Julia. 1992. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Love, Heather. 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martin, Emily. 2009. Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2018. “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change.” Cultural Anthropology 33 (4):570–95.

Public Radio International. 2020. “Australian Bushfires Take Heavy Toll on Animals.” January 7. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-01-07/1-billion-animals-have-died-australian-bushfires-ecologist-estimates.

Climate Council of Australia. 2020. “Summer of Crisis.” Report. Accessed April 18, 2020. https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Crisis-Summer-Report-200311.pdf.

Timms, Aaron. 2020. “Australia’s Infernal Denial.” The New Republic, January 7, 2020. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://newrepublic.com/article/156137/australias-infernal-denial.


Aaron Neiman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. He has a broad interest in the anthropology of science and medicine, with a focus on computing, psychiatry, and psychology. His dissertation research examines the use of digital mental health interventions in Australia. In particular, he investigates the social, economic, and political implications of taking therapy online, seeking to understand how these new encounters complicate traditional ideas about clinician-patient relationships.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Event, the Horizon.