What we know now

Over the past 7 years, as many would know, I have been involved in the University of Melbourne’s Beyond Bushfires research project (I’m even called an Honorary Fellow!). It has been an extraordinary experience for me, pushing me well out of my comfort zone, and having to learn a whole new language.

I became involved from the outset, as the University of Melbourne, like many, grappled with how they could help with the awful aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. The late Professor Liz Waters, was the original project director (who also happened to be a friend of mine, as our daughters were in school together). Passing away just over 18 months ago, without her drive, the project wouldn’t have got off the ground.

What drew me to their research was their willingness to wait, and see what the community wanted and whether they wanted to be engaged, their focus on participatory research, an integration of mental health, population health, social work, and social network analysis. There was a keenness to look long term and how the community influenced the individual and vice versa. Oh, and there were some very smart empathic people in the team too.

It was bizarre how hard it was to get funding for the research. Here was one of the largest and most complex disasters in decades, with masses of resources being thrown at it, a great opportunity to look at the long term consequences, and nobody was really interested in funding it at the start. OK, research is expensive, but I was still surprised when you tally up the costs of the disaster. We in Red Cross put up the first lot of money to go towards an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, and I think this galvanised the State and Federal Government into action (Can’t have a pesky not for profit taking a lead on these things). Before long, other partners were on board.

The research was mixed methods, quantitative and qualitative, and some really weird, interesting things like Social Network Analyses. There were two rounds of quantitative surveys, with qualitative interviews in between. One of the great things about the research team, despite the differing research methods and expertise, everyone worked really well together. I have heard that quant and qual people usually won’t be in the same room together.

There were two forums, where we presented back to the communities. The first one was on October 2014, and you can read about it here  The second one was in October of last year. It was estimated of the 80 people there, over half were community members.

The first part (before lunch) were researchers presenting, the second part was community organisations, members, and government responding.

Lisa Gibbs, the project director, from the Jack Brockhoff Child and Youth Wellbeing Program at University of Melbourne,  gave an overview of the research, that it was mixed methods using both qualitative and quantitative methods,  and involved a range of schools including public health, population health, mental health, social networks, as well as Red Cross, department of health and Human Services, and Centrelink, as well as primary care partnerships.

Richard Bryant from UNSW, one of the global leading lights in trauma research,  spoke about the long term mental health impacts. He indicated that with the first round of surveys, 26% of people indicated mental health issues that required assistance to manage. when we undertook  the second round of questions at the 5 year mark,  this had reduced to 21%. (in comparison with 3% of the population). HE also mentioned that some of these were new cases, others were continuation of cases. One of the causes of the mental health issues was linked to major life stressors that occurred since the fires (finances, employment, bereavement, illness, relationship breakdown- all code for the recovery process)

Louise Harms from Social Work at UoM spoke about bereavement and post traumatic growth. She spoke about the link between bereavement of community members and friends with poorer mental health outcomes. This being important because often the focus on bereavement services is on the family members, and friends and the community have a lesser need. She also reported on identifying  post traumatic growth, a phenomena that is rarely reported, but growing recognition. Questions about PTG were included in the second round of questions, and is was reported that women are more likely to report post traumatic growth factors. It was also interesting that high levels of PTG were also linked to high levels of post traumatic stress.

Connie Kellett, one of the PhD students and Centrelink Social Worker reported on anger. The research indicated that anger was both a motivator and a barrier to recovery. A motivator in battling the system, but a barrier in being predictive of poorer mental health outcomes, where people experienced explosive anger. One of the telling comments about getting angry with the recovery system was  “If the fire didn’t get your house, the bank would”

Lisa Gibbs reported on Physical health. People’s self reported health was lower than the general population, but there were challenges with the data, that still needed to be examined. It was thought likely that an increase in cancer might be linked with the fires, but not other chronic diseases. This was still very much work in progress.

Colin Gallagher from Swinburne University, and previously the research fellow on the study (he was the  one that put things in a black box, mixed it up, and came up with the results) reported on self reported life satisfaction. In the first wave, people reported a low sense of life satisfaction, but high sense of community. Two years later, this has reversed, with increased levels of life satisfaction, but diminishing sense of community. This may be linked to life returning to normal patterns. The sense of life satisfaction may be an important recovery indicator for us to pursue, as Anne Leadbeater says, the you have recovered when you value the life you are living.

I presented on the long term impacts of separation and reunification, which I will cover off in a separate post.

Lisa Gibbs again presented on children. The initial intention was to also undertake surveys with parents and children on impacts on children, but we were unable to get a large enough sample. We researched the provision of children’s services, and noted the paucity of services for pre-schoolers, all were  skewed toward the older children, and adolescents. Lisa recounted one story of an interview with a family, and the child, who wasn’t born at the time of the fires, could recite the whole family’s fire story, as though she was there. Research we are doing with the department of Education, linking this data, with school entry survey data, and naplan data will give a picture of educational outcomes and wellbeing.

Lauren Kosta, a PhD candidate spoke about parenting. Parents spoke of parenting situations they never expected to face. And that parents spoke of not being the parents that they wanted to be. One man said with so much going on in recovery, he felt like he had to do lots of things for his son, but all his son wanted was for him to play with him. Child care was critical, but also a two edged sword, as people were wanting to keep their children close, to protect them. Finding ways to manage the trauma reactions experienced by their children often required new understandings, skills or strategies.

Colin Gallagher, Swinburne University and weaver of black magic (he knows how to use structural equation modelling) spoke about the importance of social ties, and group membership. Group membership (somewhere between 3 and 10 groups) is a protective factor. Social ties are also important, except when peoples source of support is someone who is also experiencing mental health issues as a result of the fires, then this has a negative effect.

Lisa Gibbs spoke about on the impact of moving away or staying in the fire areas. We found that those most affected by the fires were more likely to move away. They were impacted less by major life stressors. People who stayed had a greater sense of community, and reported that they had higher levels of wellbeing. It was also noted that those that stayed but were connected to people who had left were more likely to develop depression. Overall health and wellbeing was similar for those that stayed and those that went, but their experiences were quite different.

 Karen Block from University of Melbourne presented on the impact of the environment on mental health. One of the strong themes coming through in the interviews was the impact of the natural environment on people’s health wellbeing. Both in the loss of it, as well as watching its regeneration. It is an area that will be further investigated, an as the holder of a token geography degree with some study in environmental perception, I think I may be playing apart in this.

The afternoon was about government and agency response to the findings. Generally the response was positive, without being specific.I think those there from government were genuinely supportive, but were in a hard place. I know, I’ve been there.

At the end,  Jane Fraga, a parent, Marysville community member and business owner spoke about her own experience of trying to resurrect their lives and business in a devastated township. They managed to save their coffee machine from the fire, and traded using a tent in the main street (if you have been to Marysville in the winter, that is no mean feat). She spoke of the importance of the barista as a key community member (something us Melbournians have long known)  At our first meeting of all our preparedness and recovery people around the country, we held it in Marysville and  we had dinner at their café (they opened up especially for us), which was wonderful (and we were able to put a little bit of money back into their pockets and the community’s pockets).

All this is detailed in a summary report, which gives a good snap shot of the research. The report generated a lot of media interest, locally, nationally, and internationally.

There are still many papers in the wings, and the research team, including me, will be looking at how to progress these over the coming years. Its been an amazing journey, and we are hoping that the journey can continue.

I listened to a lot of Bill Frisell driving through the blackened misty Kinglake Ranges in the years after the fires.

2 thoughts on “What we know now

  1. John, in the aftermath of a series of relatively small but large impact Bush and grass fires in NSW recently, reading your summary of the Beyond Bushfires project is timely.

    There is a strong likelihood that the NSW RFS will be undertaking social research acros a number of communities. It would be great if Beyond Bushfires was one of the drivers for how that research is shaped.


    1. Hi Tony, there is a methods paper that I can share with you, and I’m sure the research team would be happy to talk with whomever is responsible for the research. I’m interested in the small scale, large impact stuff, as I think it is something we tend to not understand well.


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