After the fires

Fr Peter Hosking SJ is a clinical psychologist with considerable experience in psychosocial responses in post-conflict situations. Here he responds to some questions about what people may be experiencing as they recover from the bushfires in recent months.

Australians are looking for ways to help those affected by this disaster. What will these people need? 

After a bushfire, there are many needs including finding safety, food, shelter, clothing, health care, financial assistance, and rebuilding. Following an emergency, it is necessary to address immediate physical needs such as shelter and supplies. People need a safe and sound environment.

The challenge will be to coordinate support well. This requires practical people who are sensitive to the experience that people have and continue to endure. Communications are essential — meetings can help people share what has happened, and plan for what they need.

Those affected need to get home when it is safe and make assessments of what they need going forward. They will need help to develop timelines about how these needs can be met.

There are many social needs, for example, the effects on family, friends and neighbours, schools, and community activities. It is important to get children back to school and to some sort of normalcy.

There are also psychological needs including anxiety, grief, anger, demands put on parental responsibilities, and capacity for companionship. These are most acutely felt in the first weeks and diminish as the months go by.

People recovering from disasters say that the most effective psychological treatment is to re-establish neighbourhood activities and enhance community supports. Less effort is needed in counselling interventions, although some specialised services are required for the acutely affected.

Most effort should go into strengthening community networks and mutual support. Support to local people from their friends, family, and spiritual leaders will help rebuild social and community networks. 

What are some of the feelings that those affected will be experiencing? 

A small number of people will experience mental health issues such as anxiety and fear. These include distressing memories of the bush fires, flashbacks, nightmares. Anxiety is a typical response to a distressing event.

People may develop fear responses such as avoiding reminders of the event, or develop more generalised fears such as fear of strangers, being alone, the dark etc. Some may experience social and emotional withdrawal, reduced interest in activities and people, or hyper-vigilance, and an unhealthy alertness or watchfulness. These symptoms do decrease as safe routines and good support is provided.

Rural Fire Service firefighters views a flank of a fire on 11 January 2020 in Tumburumba, NSW. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Rural Fire Service firefighters views a flank of a fire on 11 January 2020 in Tumburumba, NSW. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

There are a range of emotions that people will feel in the immediate aftermath. Some may experience grief and depression — feeling sad over what has been lost, uncertain about the future. They may be exhausted and just go through the motions without enthusiasm until they recover.

Some will experience anger. This is shown in uncharacteristic irritability, reduced control over impulsive behaviour, and even forceful eruptions. Some will experience guilt and shame. They may withdraw socially or ruminate excessively. There may be a preoccupation with feelings of having failed to do enough to avert what happened, feelings of unworthiness. 

People cope with their experiences as well as they can, but some coping mechanisms are not helpful, such as misuse of drugs or alcohol, dissociative episodes, or intrusions and avoidance. People need to recognise that their anger is a reaction to what they have experienced, and they will gradually learn to distinguish maladaptive from adaptive coping mechanisms.

How do people recover from such experiences, and what can we do to help? 

There is the need to provide security through the transitions. This requires practical people who are able to match few resources to large needs. Those prepared to work hard and stand in solidarity with those most affected make good contributions. These show a genuine desire to understand what survivors have been through and an interest in their future welfare. 

In the needs-assessment, attention should be given to immediate basic needs: health, accommodation, financial support, schooling and the like. We need to be patient and appreciate that the person may be doing the best they can — even when they are angry, afraid, and sad.

The reactions of survivors to outsiders can range from hostility and suspicion to reliance and dependency. A person may want and need far more contact than the worker can or should provide. Or they may reject visitors as self-promoting or do-gooders.

It is important to really listen to people’s stories and comprehend what happened, and to be affected. This is about accompaniment — being with the person as they take steps to rebuild shattered lives.

Understanding and showing solidarity is an important part of recovery and healing. Counsellors know that the expression of feelings can bring relief for an affected person, but disclosure of highly emotional material should only occur at the pace with which the survivor is comfortable. There are always spiritual and meaning-of-life issues. 

The media have shown us great stories of generosity and heroism. We have seen desperately sad stories of loss. Each of those people who died was loved and will be missed. So many have lost so much with regard to belongings, homes, crops and livelihood.

Most people are resilient and do recover. People have begun to deal with the reality of their loss, realising the extent of their misfortune and the challenge of what they have to rebuild. 

Sadly, the scale of these fires has been an extinction event for some species and the recovery of habitat will take a long time. The rebuilding of communities can take years and there will be times of great disappointment at the slowness and inefficiency of bureaucracy in the months ahead.

Rebuilding now will focus on needs-assessments, logistics and infrastructure projects. This can take so much longer than people expect. There can be frustration and blame. Donor coordination can be difficult. There can be problems with equity in aid distribution, especially for the people in remote areas.  

The first few weeks are the most problematic. But as community supports are re-established, people do recover. Over time, social and community support mechanisms develop. Schools and local businesses re-open, and life goes on. People go through processes, most of which are unfamiliar and unwanted.

While the self after a trauma may be different to the self before, people can find a way through to hope and to engaging again with all their heart and mind and soul. The post-bushfire person and community may be different to the pre-bushfire person and community. Not better or worse, just different.  

 

The following resources may be of interest:

Psychological First Aid: An Australian guide to supporting people affected by disaster

Disasters: A range of information sheets, as well as video content, including on recovering from bushfires

If you are affected by depression or suicidal thoughts, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit https://www.lifeline.org.au/https://www.lifeline.org.au/

Header image: Rural Fire Service firefighters views a flank of a fire on 11 January 2020 in Tumburumba, NSW. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

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