We are being immersed in extraordinary imagery as the nationwide bushfire crisis unfolds. People sheltering, animals fleeing, masked kids steering their families to safety, normally blue skies an eerie orange, or worse still black during the middle of the day. In our hyperconnected world, we have constant exposure to the unfolding emergency. We are in the cabs of the fire truck in the flame over, we are at the jetty in Mallacoota, wondering what is going to happen next, we are rescuing the burnt animals. Bringing us much closer to what is happening, increases our exposure to potentially traumatic situations.
We can become all too caught up in the unfolding horror, particularly in this situation with its political overtones. We should be mindful that this can affect us. Those who have been through it before, those at a loss as to what to do, children, who will be seeing beloved native animals die, teenagers who might be wondering is this the rest of my life. There is a connection between television watching and serious mental health outcomes, including PTSD. In these situations its so important to limit exposure to the coverage, it can be overwhelming.
Keeping up to date with what is going on is important, particularly if we have a connection with a place that is affected. Pick one source of information that you trust, and rely upon them. Check only at a few times of the day. While the situation is very dynamic, news sources actually don’t update that often. Constant checking can cause anxiety.
Think about social media use. Its a powerful tool for sharing information, as well as an outlet for a range of emotions. It is very easy, though to get caught up in the debate, the sniping, the misinformation. Its also strong source of exposure to terrifying images, because many people share them, so be wary of how much you click on. Check sources of information (particularly about the fire situation) before sharing, you might be unwittingly spreading rumours or worse, fake news, that can cause additional distress to those under threat and those surviving. It also diverts the attention of those that are helping.
Check in on children about what they are seeing and hearing, and what is being said among their circles. They don’t have the safety net that is the classroom at the moment, to help them understand what is happening. Try to minimise the distressing images or verbal media reports your children see, and be with them if they are watching news reports. Make sure you are informed as well, so you can answer any questions. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, thoughts and concerns, and don’t dismiss their issues as trivial – this can create a belief that the events were too awful to talk about, or that their concerns are not important. Acknowledge concerns that are real and gently correct any misconceptions. Get further help if you don’t feel comfortable. Check in on other parents to see what they are doing.
The imagery and stories we are seeing are brought to us by journalists, providing an extraordinary public interest. This is a hidden affected group. Repeated exposure to stories, imagery, combined with newsroom deadlines can create immense stress, and can lead to vicarious trauma. The Dart Centre For Journalism and Trauma has excellent guidance on how to manage exposure.
And of course not to forget the exposure that firefighters, police, ambulance, first aiders, relief workers, most of them volunteers, most of them have been on high alert for months now. Their supports will need to be strong, to help deal with this unprecedented situation.
The imagery can make us feel helpless, and provoke a desire to help. This gives us a sense of agency, of being able to do something about the situation. We need to be careful about what form this takes, as sometimes the helping can becoming hindering, as communities become overwhelmed with kindness. There are some simple ways to help.
In all of this, self care is important. Switch off, do something you like doing, be with people you like being with, exercise, etc. Don’t lose sight of the crisis, but bring in balance.