Grieving for what you’ve lost – and grieving for your country
After a bushfire, the mental scars can last for years.
Past experiences, both in Australia and overseas, tell us that the mental health impact of our bushfire emergency could last for up to five years.
“We know that the impacts of natural disasters extend beyond the end of the emergency, with the mental impacts of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires being felt up to five years post-disaster for some people,” Christine Morgan, the CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, told the Canberra Times.
“Because of this, it is important that the mental health and wellbeing of Australians is supported immediately, as well as providing ongoing long-term interventions.”
A study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (May 2014) looked at fire-hit areas about three years after the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people and levelled huge tracts of land.
The study found that more than 15 per cent of respondents in heavily affected areas reported probable PTSD associated with the fires, while 13 per cent reported depression and almost 25 per cent reported heavy drinking.
“In Victoria, we know all too well that recovery is not as simple as rebuilding infrastructure. It’s something that can take us not just months, but years – and we need to support people and their mental health every step of the way as they deal with the trauma,” said Luke Donnellan, Victoria’s acting minister for mental health.
Diane Ross-Glazer, a psychotherapist who has counselled disaster survivors and lived through bushfires herself in California told Time Magazine that as a result of the bushfires, Australia’s “psyche will change. You’re not only grieving what you lost; you’re grieving for your country”.
She said it was important to bring people together as they grieve, and to keep that connection going for months or even years after a disaster via public support groups, memorials and ceremonies.
Coping with bushfire stress and eco-anxiety
The summer’s bushfires have left many Australians despairing over the devastation of the bushfires on lives and property.
Experts say many people could now be vulnerable to “eco-anxiety” or what the American Psychological Association describes as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
Writing in The Conversation, Professor James Scott, the head of Mental Health at the QIMR Berghofer Mental Institute and his colleague Fiona Charlson outlined some measures to help people build resilience:
- Connect with friends and family and positively engage in your community
- Support those who are vulnerable – it benefits both the giver and receiver
- Seek to reduce your own carbon footprint. This can alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness and make a positive difference to the environment
- Join one of the many groups advocating for the environment
- Assist bushfire relief efforts
- Seek mental health support if you feel your mental health is deteriorating.