Love you to the moon and back

This was one of the refrains that often bounced around the house with our girls, when we were asked how much we loved them. It’s a wonderful statement.  And today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon (warning, I am a bit of a space tragic).

The “back” part of this refrain is the really interesting one. We talk about the successful lunar landing, and that is what is celebrated. The return journey is equally fraught and dangerous, but perhaps because its returning home, job done, it doesn’t rate much attention. It’s a bit like I am worried most about the take offs when I am flying, yet landing is more dangerous, and I am OK about that (because I’m returning to terra firma).

This could be seen the same for recovery. The attention is on responding to the event, because it is big, exciting, challenging, threatening, the “job” is not done. Once the threat is neutralised, the job is done, and we return to normal programming, “we return”.

I read an interesting article this morning by Simon Smart, from the Centre for Public Christianity reminded me how challenging it was for astronauts to return. They faced existential challenges, seeing that tiny blue disc from afar. Many battled with mental health issues after their return to earth. Others questioned their spirituality.

I reflected on this with my own experience of spending 2 weeks in the US in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (and while, clearly on a different scale, it did bring some things up). In this situation, I was  so out of my normal comfort zone (and folks, lets not get over excited here, I was based in the Embassy, and living out of a comfortable hotel), but still many thousands of kilometres away, the connection to home through a tinny little copper wire, and we were overwhelmed, being so exposed to what was happening down in New Orleans, and the demands placed on us in the US, and from back home in Canberra.

When we were demobilised, I remember my return to work was difficult. I spent a number of weeks effectively staring out the window, questioning why, what could we have done to make the mission work, why was the US so fucked, how did people get put in that position. I talked to my friend Rob Gordon, the disaster psychologist, about it, and he said “it will probably take you three times the length of you being away to readjust, because of all those challenges to your sense of certainty and normality, and then just dealing with the stress”. Naturally, wise words. But ministerial briefings wouldn’t wait for this adjustment.

We’ve come a long way with workforce wellbeing in my time in this area. It is a significant investment of time and effort within our own team to support the volunteers in the field. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC has funded research into the mental health and wellbeing of emergency services workers. This is really welcome.

I would like to see this work extended to recovery workers. Maybe the acute, traumatic stress is not perceived to be there (although I would argue that, as recovery starts at the same time as response, it is there, and recovery workers can be in some very difficult situations early on), but the ongoing chronic, complex stress is there, and its ongoing. Organisations tend to fall back on their “well you can check in with EAP”, but my own experience of EAP mirrors many others I speak about. They aren’t skilled in the disaster recovery context, and don’t address it, falling back on areas of comfort “So, you have conflict in your workplace, lets look at that”

There are great resources in helping manage through recovery, like Jolie Wills Leading Through Recovery a companion in chaos but I would like to see this type of work supported by more empirical evidence.

So the reason why we are remembering this today, was that the mission was successful, the Apollo 11 crew returned safety. Not only had the eagle landed, but it come home safely.


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