Over the past three years I’ve been operating in an parallel universe. It’s called Beyond Bushfires, a research study looking at the health impacts of the Black Saturday Bushfires. The reason I call it an alternative reality, as this research stuff is all new to me. It has its own language and rules, and practices, and is fascinating.
It is University of Melbourne Study, led by Lisa Gibbs, but has collaboration with University of NSW, Flinders University, and the Australian Centre for Post Traumatic Stress. We in Red Cross have been involved from the start. I really saw it as an opportunity to promote and contribute to some current research into disaster impacts. One of the challenges I have stated over and over again, is that recovery is poorly researched. Few of the recent Australian disasters have been well researched. What really attracted me to the Uni of Melbourne team was that they were trying to do something different, both quantitative and qualitative, but also trying to get a handle on community level impacts. This is something that most studies don’t look at (being very mental health individual focussed). IT is also a fabulous group of people, who spent a lot of time laying the groundwork for the study, and have committed to the communities that are being studied to feedback to them. This, I gather, is a bit unusual for research.
It was interesting at the beginning of the project, because nobody wanted to fund it, despite the enormity of the impact of the fires. It was surprising, and disappointing as I thought this was a great opportunity to help find out what happens and what helps, so we don’t continue to make the same mistakes. Sometimes I think governments and agencies don’t really want to learn how to do things better. It wasn’t until it was decided that it would be submitted as an Australian Research Council linkage grant, and we decided to become a research partner, and contribute some money, that things started to move. Both the Victorian and Federal government came on board as a partner then. My reading of the tea leaves was that the powers that be didn’t want some pesky NGO to be the only supporter of research, and that once we put our money where our mouth was, it became a risk management strategy. I’d like to hope that I’m wrong!
Last week we ran a forum that presented the research as it currently stands. There were well over 100 people there, and to our surprise a decent majority of them were from fire affected communities (which was hoped for). The research is summarised by a great piece from Lisa Gibbs on The Conversation, so I won’t go into it.
The day started out tense. Although it was a terrific gentle opening from Glyn Davis the Vice Chancellor, and Liz Waters, the Director of the Jack Brockhoff Program, the tension in the room was palpable. Lesley Bebbington from Kinglake gave us an eloquent harsh reminder of the challenges of the day, the weeks and the present. I think that it was probably because of the formal setting (a university lecture theatre), and the fact that these are communities that are used to any communications being set up as a one way street. It was also hard, I think, for the group to comprehend that 15% of the study group were still feeling very crap after this time is actually very high. I think that this group, in the main, came along because they still have a strong connection with people who are hurting.
The mood shifted as I think the room realised that we in the research team wanted their feedback, that they realised the challenges of research (if we all asked every question we wanted to, then the questionnaire would take about 6 hours!). The contributions, while still lively and challenging, became more positive.
I had to present some research that I am “leading” on. I add the quotation marks, as there are people way more cleverer than me doing the actual work, using things like Structural Equation Models(don’t ask me to explain it). Presenting this work was more challenging that I have been for sometimes, and for a range of reasons I felt horribly under prepared. The work focusses on separation and reunification, and the long mental health outcomes. My interest in this area stems from a lightbulb moment. My mother was always highly anxious when there was a hot northerly wind blowing, wanting to know where my brother and I were, not wanting us to go out. She didn’t explain it herself, other than to say in her bluff way, I hate these days. Years later she told me the story of her father going off to fight the Black Friday Bushfires that ringed her town. He didn’t come back for a week. She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead (no communications then). When he came back, she didn’t recognise him, covered in soot. She was 11 years old. Years after, I put two and two together, and realised the source of her anxiety.
As I faced the audience, this group of people who have been to hell and back, I looked down at the note a I’d scribbled as an introduction, 11 year old girl (the age of my youngest daughter, Amy), and became overwhelmed and quite emotional. I am not sure why, maybe because of being overtired, maybe the challenge of what I was trying to present, and the audience. I did manage to compose myself and present, and I think it was well received.
The day was rounded out nicely by Dean Lusher from Swinburne University channelling Samuel L JAckson from Pulp fiction to explaining social network analysis (my girlfriend is a vegetarian, that makes me a vegetarian).
I think it made me realise how important I consider the research, because I want to use it to belt people over the head who don’t believe in the complexity of recovery (particularly the keepers of the purse strings).