Charles Sturt University Associate Head of School (Learning and Teaching) in the School of Psychology, Associate Professor Gene Hodgins, looks at the psychology of recovering after a disaster one year after tragic bushfires raged through the country.
The one-year anniversary of the 2019-20 bushfires recently passed for many affected communities. Such a milestone can lead people to ask: ‘What does psychological recovery look like after a disaster?’ ‘How are we affected by anniversaries of traumatic events?’ ‘How can we promote recovery and resilience?’
Psychological recovery after a disaster
All traumatic incidents have an impact on the emotional and mental health of the people affected, whether it was a bushfire or other event. What makes bushfires unique is the potential scale of the tragic loss of life and injury, but also the secondary effects, including loss of one’s home, income, job opportunities, local services, social networks and opportunities for social gatherings.
Overall, we know that the impact of bushfires on health can include:
• Increased mental health problems
• Feelings of panic and anxiety, phobias, sleeplessness, headaches, isolation and withdrawal
• Prolonged stress over a long period
• A differential impact – worse among people with lower socio-economic status, migrants and marginalised ethnic groups, the elderly, and children
• Up to four times as many women in regions affected by bushfires report violence than those in non-affected areas – often linked to increased financial stress
• Social networks account for a lot of the differential impact and recovery
• If social networks have been severely debilitated by the fire, the crucial role of social support in recovery (e.g. providing information, emotional support and practical help) will be compromised
Resilience is common, and people react differently
Until recently, resilience among adults exposed to potentially traumatic events (PTEs) was thought to occur rarely. Recent research tells us that resilience is the most common natural reaction to loss or trauma. However, the complexity of human responses to trauma is also being discovered. We now know that people follow different trajectories of response following major life stressors. While resilience is the most common response (50-60 per cent of people), other reactions include a recovery response where symptoms reduce over time (15-25 per cent), chronic issues (5-25 per cent), and the delayed onset of difficulties (0-15 per cent) (refer to diagram). People can differ in their response to adversity. The majority adapt successfully, but many will experience difficulties such as strong feelings of fear, sadness, guilt, anger or grief.
Anniversaries of disasters
For many people, anniversary reactions are upsetting, and regardless of the trauma, they can be emotionally complex and distressing. But despite anniversaries being predictable, the reactions themselves are as varied as the individuals experiencing them.
If anniversary reactions are impacting on a person’s functioning, strategies that can help include:
• Preparation – be ready for upcoming anniversaries
• Commemorate – spend time reflecting on the event and its impact
• Remember that it is temporary – while distressing, anniversaries do pass
• Find support – reach out to others
• ‘Birthday effect’ – birthdays can also be triggers for people
Promoting recovery and resilience
Five essential principles that have been found to promote recovery from disasters are: a sense of safety, calming, sense of self and collective efficacy (e.g. confidence, power, capacity to get life back together), connectedness, and hope. Both community interventions and also individual psychological therapy address these factors.
For bushfire recovery, it is important that strategies must plan for ‘communities’, in addition to the more traditional focus on ‘victims’, ‘survivors’ and ‘service providers’. Specifically, strategies are recommended in social network building, reconnecting people to place and empowering residents to play leading roles in the recovery process.
Intimate relationships, family support and social networks make a significant difference to recovery from bushfires. While the nature of the social influences on a person’s recovery experience is complicated, we know that social ties matter. Belonging to local community groups has been found to be an important contributor to mental health and wellbeing outcomes. In communities, where many people belonged to local groups, the benefits extended to other people living in that community.
We also know that bushfire disasters can affect how children learn and develop. Research shows that the academic progress of many children in fire-affected areas can be substantially impacted compared to peers in unaffected areas. We must provide additional support for children following bushfires to help them reach their full potential and implement school-based programs that give children the knowledge, skills and support to be able to thrive in our disaster-prone Australian environments.
If you or someone you know needs further assistance, contact:
• Lifeline – lifeline.org.au – 13 11 14
• Kids Helpline – kidshelpline.com.au – 1800 55 1800
• National Bushfire Recovery Agency – bushfirerecovery.gov.au/recovery-support/mental-health
• Australian Red Cross – redcross.org.au/get-help/emergencies/coping-after-a-crisis
• Beyond Blue – beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/bushfires-and-mental-health