When I look at how current national bushfire crisis is unfolding, apart from the intense partisan debate around the cause/denial of cause of the bushfires, it fits a well worn pattern. Much of the commentary is framing a narrative about heroic near misses, tragic losses, and stoicism about picking up and moving on. We see this often, and it is a straight up rendering of what people think they see is happening. Its not too far removed from the disaster movie storyline. Naturally what occurs on the ground, and what will happen into the future will be more complex and more nuanced. The narrative is yet to shift forward to what people will face in the six weeks, six months, year, 3 years, 5 years and beyond. These are life changing events, communities will be changed, and and the path to recovery will be bumpy.
But we have to be thinking about these issues now, so that a safety net forms around people as they navigate a range of major life stressors, all at once, over the next few years. We all face death of loved ones, changing jobs, moving houses, building/rebuilding, changing communities, illness over the course of our lives. And many of us face some form of traumatic event.But people who have been through the fires will have all of these stressors collapse in on them, at once.
These fires share some similar characteristics with Black Saturday, (although not the level of losses, of life, of property, nor the length of impacts) the media attention, the horror element, the disbelief. While it is often difficult to generalise, we have learnt so much from our research with the Beyond Bushfires Team at University of Melbourne into the impacts of Black Saturday.
We know that 3 years after Black Saturday a quarter of people experienced serious mental health challenges, and after five years, this had dropped to a fifth. We all know the debilitating nature of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Clinical services, particularly in the rural areas will need to be experienced in trauma, and understand the disaster context. Depression was more prevalent when people were connected to others with depression, or with people who had left the community, or had few social connections. PTSD was prevalent in people that had few social connections, or linked to people with high levels of property loss.
Grief will be apparent. Focus will be on those that lost loved ones, but we know that that it is more complex, with the loss of friends, community members, colleagues, pets, homes, and the environment all being felt intensely. The good news is that prolonged grief was rare.
Violence against women, and children will occur. We found that in areas that had high impact there were higher rates of violence against women, and that this contributed to poorer mental health outcomes. This lines up with the storied captured by the Gender and Disaster Pod in their research post Black Saturday. This needs to be talked about in any community education, capacity building for agencies, as well as of course having services available. It cannot be swept under the carpet.
We know that children’s educational outcomes are likely to be poorer, as we found that kids were behind in progress against NAPLAN measures in bushfire affected schools in reading and numeracy in year 3 to year 5 gains. Teacher’s will need to be supported in classrooms to help kids reach their potential.
The recovery process has a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing. This we know from the role of major life stressors post disaster and their impact on people. The stress of having to navigate a system that is often poorly targeted or coordinated is hard work.
We know that peoples decisions about whether to stay in their community or leave their community has an impact on the types of mental health challenges they experience. Those that leave, often associated more with an extreme experience of fearing for their lives or losing property are more likely to experience PTSD. The experience of the day remains with them. Those that stay are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. The experience of the recovery process blunts the trauma of the day, but presents a new challenge, the exhaustion of dealing with stuff that just makes it hard.
If people were separated from their loved ones and did not know where they are, this was not only extremely distressing, but also led to poorer mental health outcome. This is particularly prevalent in people who are anxious about their relationships.
We know that being part of a group is really helpful for people, and leads to lower levels of PTSD. Social ties do matter. The challenge is not to get over involved, and with a focus on community led recovery, and tendency in communities for a few people to do the heavy lifting, this should be watched.
Surprisingly, the regeneration of the natural environment has a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. A strong attachment to the environment led to reduced psychological distress, fewer symptoms of major depression and fire-related PTSD, and higher levels of resilience, post-traumatic growth and life satisfaction
The phenomenon of Post Traumatic Growth is also prevalent, although this is associated with high levels of Post Traumatic Stress. This also needs to be recognised in community education. People need to know its OK that they feel like they have grown as a result of the events they experienced, and not feel guilty about it.
So much of what we have learned in this extraordinary research project can now be used to help the communities in New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and Victoria begin to navigate their recovery process. They don’t have to fumble around as much as we did after Black Saturday, after the Alpine Fires, the Grampians Fires. We’ve come a long way, and of course there is still a long way to go.
Well, I didn’t think that I would be writing this. Earlier in the year, I was ready to retire the blog, convinced that I didn’t really have anything more of use to say, and when i did, it was not the easy free flowing stream of consciousness that it had once been. It felt like a chore. But, I didn’t get around to writing a “retirement” piece, and then a few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend at a 50th about this. He said “don’t stop writing, its important, we need people like you to write this stuff. You make sense of it all for us” So, Colin, thank you. I also didn’t know what I could contribute among all the noise of the current crisis. It’s a crowded space, and plenty of opinions there. But I realised there was a story that was not being told, and may not be told. That story is that its challenging, its tough, its exhausting, it takes a big chunk out of your life, you do things that you never thought you’d have to do, and meet people you’d never think you’d meet, and how you experience it is different to everyone else, but you are also not alone, and that you wouldn’t want to experience it ever again, but there are parts that have been rewarding.
Merry Christmas everyone. Thank you for reading and supporting me.
Australia’s greatest three piece, Even, sum it up. I’m hoping we can help people navigate the woods.