The Canterbury earthquakes had widespread adverse effects on mental health, according to a new review.
University of Otago researchers reviewed 20 studies examining the impacts of the earthquakes and most found adverse
effects. The researchers noted that while support services such as free counselling exist, New Zealand's public health
services are already under strain and even small increases in demand may result in a considerable extra burden for
The research was published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health - the SMC gathered comments
from experts independent of the study.
Dr Ian de Terte, senior lecturer, clinical psychologist, Massey University, comments:
"The Canterbury earthquakes occurred in 2010 and 2011. There were four major earthquakes and over 10,000 aftershocks.
The earthquake in February 2011 was extremely distressing for the people exposed to this event, in particular, it
resulted in fatalities, major injuries, and damage to property. Furthermore, the continued aftershocks were
disconcerting for the residents of Christchurch. There is some evidence to suggest that people may experience
psychological discomfort from these events. It is therefore important that we understand the psychological distress from
events like the Canterbury earthquakes especially with the mosque attacks that occurred on 15 March 2019.
"There are various factors that may impact on why an individual may or may not have a psychological reaction to such an
event. However, it is extremely important to remember that there is no answer as to why some people have psychological
difficulties post an event of this nature and some do not. A number of studies were undertaken post the sequence of
earthquakes in Christchurch. It was established that there was an increase in psychological distress in people who had
been exposed to the Canterbury earthquakes. Prior evidence suggests that typically there is a greater presence of
distress in people who had greater exposure to such events. This same relationship was established in studies of
individuals who had been exposed to the sequence of earthquakes in Christchurch.
"Probably the most important strategy that was implemented in Christchurch after the earthquakes was free access to
counselling. It is difficult to measure the impact this strategy would have accomplished but some normalising of events
by counsellors is extremely powerful. I believe if this strategy had not taken place then mental health rates would have
"It is also important that individuals exposed to such events are compassionate to themselves, utilise their own
adaptive coping strategies that they have used previously (e.g., support from neighbours), and if they require
assistance they should seek it. I trust that a strategy like free counselling will be instigated for the people that
were involved in the tragic events of 15 March 2019."
No conflict of interest.
Dr Sarb Johal, consultant clinical psychologist in private practice, comments:
"The repeated nature of the challenges associated with the Canterbury earthquake sequence was unusual in that it was
made up not only of the earthquakes themselves, but was also followed by the potential cumulative impact of the
secondary stressors that people lived with for years. Some continue to do so. The fact that this thorough systematic
review finds that the Canterbury earthquake sequence was associated with widespread, but not universal, negative impacts
on mental health fits well into our evolving understanding of the impacts of disasters on mental health.
"The paper also demonstrates the continued need to support high-quality research in New Zealand. I note that 35 per cent
of the relevant research that met criteria for inclusion in the review was deemed to be of ‘high quality’. This
high-quality research was characterised by large sample numbers and /or being part of a larger programme of research
using repeated measures or longitudinal designs. Without timely high-quality research to inform potential policy
formulation as well as public mental health and front-line interventions, we risk missing opportunities to reduce the
impacts of disasters when they occur. We must press on with strategic investments in high quality, New Zealand-based
research to understand our unique hazardscape and its potential and actualised consequences for all of New Zealand’s
No conflict of interest.