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Insurance firm offers mental health support as UK flood risk surges

Reuters logo Reuters 1/20/2021 By Laurie Goering, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Jan 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As climate change hikes the risk of flooding in England, now being deluged by Storm Christoph, insurance firm Zurich UK has begun offering mental health counselling for clients, saying repairing flooded homes is no longer a sufficient response.

"With five million people in England at risk of flooding, and climate change intensifying the frequency and severity of extreme weather, a mental health crisis is looming," warned David Nichols, Zurich UK's chief claims officer.

The company's work helping flood-hit homeowners fix up their properties showed that some of the emotional consequences of the damage - from ruined family photos and mementoes to lingering feelings of insecurity - were not being addressed, he said.

"It's a highly traumatic experience. You lose so many valuable memories and personal possessions that insurance just cannot replace," Nichols told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People forced from their homes for long periods often are also anxious or depressed, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic as more people work at home or spend more time there.

Nowadays, for many people, home is "probably their only protective space", Nichols said.

Last year, the company began experimenting with offering up to five hour-long counselling sessions for flood-hit insured families, a service it also made available to victims of break-in thefts and house fires, he added.

Only about 15% of those offered mental health support for any kind of claim took it up and most were women, he said.

But the company - a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Zurich Insurance Group - has now made the free counselling service a standard part of its flood policies and believes it is the first in Britain to do so, Nichols said.

"As more people get impacted, I think we will see the long-term impacts to mental health of flooding," he said.

A 2019 study by the University of York and the National Centre for Social Research, following severe floods in 2013-2014 that inundated 10,000 homes in Britain, found those flooded were 50% more likely to be anxious, depressed or otherwise in poor mental health.

And with heavy rain and storms threatening more flooding this winter, tens of thousands of people already struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic face a double disaster.

"If ever there was a moment to wake up to the mental, as well as the physical, devastation caused by flooding, it is now," Nichols said.

Sea level has risen about 16 cm (6 inches) in Britain since 1990, making coastal areas more vulnerable to storm surges, according to Julie Foley, director of flood risk strategy for Britain's Environment Agency.

Heavier rainfall also is worsening surface floods away from rivers and shorelines, in places "where we never previously expected them", as rain cannot run off fast enough, said Sean Walkden, property claims manager for British insurer NFU Mutual.

Zurich's Nichols said one way to curb the growing physical and mental risks from flooding would be to expand access to a 5,000-pound ($6,800) government flood resilience grant.

Currently the government only provides the funding - to pay for measures like installing flood barriers - to people whose homes have already been hit by flooding, he added.

"This is akin to shutting the Thames Barrier after a storm surge," he said.

"We need to give communities most at risk of flooding a chance to defend their homes before extreme weather strikes," he emphasised. (Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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