Supporting Mental Health & Wellbeing in Times of Devastation

Read Gregory’s reflections on the current bushfire crisis, the psychological stages that Australians will be going through and how we can all support our loved ones through this difficult start to the year.

Mallacoota kids with thank you sign
I find myself conflicted: I can’t bring myself to bid people Happy New Year because for the thousands of Australians affected by the destruction and devastation of these horrific bushfires, the New Year is far from happy. It seems to me to be a rather sombre time, even for those of us who are far from the fires.

If you have not been touched by this personally, you may well know someone who has. To support those people it can be helpful to understand what they are going through emotionally and psychologically, now and as they start to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Over the years I have observed that in disasters such as these there are three critical stages that people may need to work through in order to return to a healthy psychological place.

Stage 1: Disbelief, dissociation and distress

During this time people are most vulnerable and can find it extremely hard to make decisions about their own care or the care of others, including the decision to stay or go, which can be extremely stressful. They can be consumed with thoughts and a deep sense of disbelief that it is really happening to them to the point where their mind, in order to cope, may shut down, split off or dissociate.

That is why seeing men and women in uniform such as the CFA, army, navy or air force and police can be immensely reassuring in times of crisis. The services become ‘the blanket’ by which people can feel held.

In terms of helping, this is the time for meeting people’s immediate needs, safety, shelter, food and physical and psychological first aid.

Stage 2: Reflection, storytelling and problem solving

When the immediate crisis has passed very often people need to share their experiences and express their thoughts.

They will want to talk about why it happened, who is to blame and what needs to be done so it won’t happen again. They will need to tell their stories of their experience of the event. They may also be reflecting on their own actions, particularly their decision to stay or go. They may experience high levels of guilt if they believe their decision wasn’t the right one.

This may go on for several weeks, if not months. Formal and informal groups may form for people to reflect and share their stories.

This is a time for those of us on the receiving end to demonstrate good listening skills and not be in a hurry to move on. The telling of stories, venting of feelings and a desire to find solutions is all part of recovery and will take time.

Stage 3: Rebuilding

Weeks and months after the crisis, when those not impacted by the event are focused elsewhere and the media has moved on to other things, many people will still be living in devastated areas trying to rebuild their lives. They will still need practical and psychological support during this time and we should be mindful not to try and rush the process because those of us who have moved on think people should ‘get on with their lives’.

Rebuilding can be an extremely healing stage for people when they are provided with the right supports to move through it. People will move through this stage in different ways and lengths of time and it is important to recognise this and not become impatient as an individual, community or indeed a nation.

With the danger not over many people are still in Stage 1. If you are supporting anyone in this stage, here are 8 strategies I have found to be useful that you could share with them.
  1. Find people you feel safe with to talk to
  2. Take care of your physical health by eating and sleeping regularly
  3. Be aware that children will be looking to adults for reassurance
  4. Where possible ensure children have time to play and do not overly expose them to constant radio and TV updates about fires unless you believe you are in danger and need the information to keep safe
  5. Continue any family rituals where possible e.g. if Fridays are fish and chip nights, have fish and chips
  6. Where possible and as soon as possible let extended family members know you are safe; the anxiety of not knowing can in itself become traumatic
  7. Don’t see accessing professional services as a weakness, this can be a game-changer when it comes to recovering from a traumatic event
  8. Reach out and stay connected to your community, family and friends

For those of you not directly impacted by this season’s fires but who have been affected in the past, be aware that this could be a trigger for you and your children  ­­— look to the above if it is so.

We will endeavour to post more about working through these stages in the coming weeks.

I wish all our colleagues, carers, friends and your children all the best and keep safe.

Gregory Nicolau
Founder / CEO
Australian Childhood Trauma Group

Photo cred: Erin Lehman managed to keep her kids busy by drawing a thank you sign for the Country Fire Authority (CFA).