Somatic symptoms, psychological distress and trauma after disasters: lessons from the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire and 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires

Caroline X. Gao, Jana Menssink, Timothy C.H. Campbell, Catherine L. Smith, Jillian F. Ikin, Tyler Lane, Michael J. Abramson, Matthew Carroll

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Background: Wildfires cause significant physical and mental ill-health. How physical and mental symptoms interact following wildfire smoke exposure is unclear, particularly in the context of repeated exposures. In this cross-sectional study we investigated how posttraumatic stress and general psychological distress associated with somatic symptoms in a community exposed to multiple smoke events. Methods: A random weighted sample of 709 adults exposed to smoke during the 2014 Hazelwood coal mine fire in south-eastern Australia completed a survey in 2020. The survey coincided with the Black Summer wildfires that caused a similar period of smoke haze in the region. Participants self-reported somatic symptoms (PHQ-15) and mine fire-related posttraumatic stress (IES-R) experienced over the previous week, general psychological distress (K10) experienced over the previous four weeks, lifetime health diagnoses and demographic information. Associations between posttraumatic stress, general psychological distress, and each PHQ-15 somatic symptom were analysed using ordinal logistic regression models. Results: Overall, 36.2% of participants reported moderate- or high-level somatic symptomology. The most frequent somatic symptoms were fatigue, limb pain, trouble sleeping, back pain, headaches, and shortness of breath. After controlling for confounding factors, general psychological distress and posttraumatic stress were independently associated with all somatic symptoms (except menstrual problems in females for posttraumatic stress). Conclusions: Results highlight the high prevalence of somatic symptoms and their association with general psychological distress and posttraumatic stress within a community in the midst of a second large-scale smoke event. It is essential that healthcare providers and public health authorities consider the interconnections of these conditions when supporting communities affected by climate-related disasters.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1573
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • General psychological distress
  • Posttraumatic stress
  • Repeated disaster exposure
  • Smoke exposure
  • Somatic symptoms
  • Wildfires

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