"Highlighting the inadequacies of the way in which the earthquakes of 2010-2012 were handled by the insurance industry! "

Mental health and earthquakes:  Why can’t we learn from the Italians?  – Guest blog by Steve Patterson

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As I write this, parts of the city are coping from yet another aftershock.  Reading about it on Sunday my blood pressure rose, and I found myself anxious and sweating.  Yet I live 20,000 km’s away in Europe.  Perhaps it was the worry for my son, alone, finishing his schooling in Christchurch.  Or maybe it was from the memories of liquefaction and my unrepaired home, or the worries of being a Christchurch business owner.


Christchurch 5 years post Feb 22nd 2011 Canterbury Earthquake

But it was more than that.  The reported intention by the government to cut health service funding, to lower than the national average, affecting the delivery of mental health support for Cantabrians, offended my sense of decency and justice.

In the 2014 a joint study was published by three Italian universities on the midterm psychological consequences of the L’Aquila earthquake.[1]  An Italian earthquake in 2009 of similar magnitude in size, damage and loss of life to that experienced in Christchurch.

That study documented significant health problems amongst victims (higher incidents of stress, anxiety, cardiovascular, depression, PTSD in both children and adults). Psychologically, people became seriously confused because of numerous changes, lost buildings and churches, more evident in those forced to leave their own houses.  The study also found that older people were more vulnerable in disasters. They perceived a lower quality of life, physical capacity, and psychological wellbeing after the earthquake from displacement, poor housing, and diminished access to health services, leading to depression and lack of self-control.   Furthermore, the study showed significantly worse health for women than men, especially in areas of anxiety, depression, positivity and vitality, leading to anxiety, nervousness, fatigue, and weakness.

In 1978, New Zealand ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which covers (amongst others) the right to the highest attainable physical and mental health, and adequate housing.  The United Nations(UN) committee which administers the ICESCR treaty, and complaints through a judicial tribunal, provides the right to health to mean that in a time of natural disaster, the State is to extend special protective measures to vulnerable groups within society and ensure a degree of priority consideration.  This includes the provision of mental health services.

Which begs the question, with so many housing claims still unresolved (an underlying determinant of mental health) with looming cuts to mental health services in Christchurch, and with clear international evidence of the effects of natural disaster’s on a populations mental health, which part about NZ’s international legal obligations does the government not get? Or, as a member of the UN Security Council, is it a case of do as I say, not as I do?

[1] V. Cofini, A. Carbonelli, M.R. Cecilia, F. di Orio, Quality of life, psychological wellbeing and resilience: a survey on the Italian population living in a new lodging after the earthquake of April 2009,  ANNALI DI IGIENE MEDICINA PREVENTIVA E DI COMUNITÀ , 2014


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Author: Sarah-Alice Miles

Love to write, create and watch the clouds move across the sky - these days in the Netherlands. 'Art allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time'.

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