Unimaginable experiences in unimaginable times.

The musings of Emilie Traeger, one of our clinicians in Canberra, on the nature of crisis responses during this catastrophic bushfire season.

As the enormity of the devastation from the bushfires surrounded me, I sat, feeling helpless, both at home and at work. As the media shared the news of the terrible impact of the fires in NSW and Victoria, I habitually checked my Fires Near Me and air quality apps, and watched the smoke roll in on the reliable Canberra breeze each evening. I can only imagine the experience of those immediately affected by this bushfire season, and the fear, grief and loss which has been spreading all too far.

How do we respond in times of crises and disaster?

Seeing the amazing communities supporting one another through this most challenging time, I have felt immense pride in the Aussie “battler” spirit of our wonderful nation. However, I can’t also help feeling a little cynical when I read about the response at a federal level, which is working to keep up with the enormity of the need that is brought on by the bushfire crisis. I know that funding is needed to address the physical and mental needs of those affected by the bushfires. I work within an organisation whose focus is to provide best practice for those who have been affected by trauma, which many have experienced this spring and summer. Professionally, I can’t help but feel that the supports being announced and funded fall short of what is needed to enable individuals, families, and communities to rebuild their lives.

Yes, making available additional counselling sessions, telecounselling or training for professionals in recognising and responding to trauma is important, but once the media fray dies down and these dreadful stories become yesterday’s news, will there still be support available to communities? Because that’s when the evidence says they need it the most. Engaging people with counselling services is an intrinsically difficult thing to do. More often, the most vulnerable and least resourced are those who most struggle to access and engage with services.

The need, therefore, is for service providers to involve themselves in community life and build relationships of trust over a long period of time. This, in addition to a community-wide approach rather than focusing upon individual self-referrals are most likely to successfully connect with those most in need.

Simply put, repair of psychological wounds comes through relationships. The bushfires throughout Australia have initiated a knock-on effect which has the potential to pull people together or to push them apart. This is where the full impact of trauma can come into effect.

Consider the local school.

Schools are not just a place in which learning happens. Schools are a place of community – where children and adults alike have opportunities to build lifelong friendships through sharing life together. Unfortunately, the common shared experience for many who will be returning to school in February includes experiences of loss of property, evacuation, and for some school communities they will also be mourning the loss of life.

It is therefore critical to support these networks, both to make sense of the immediate situation, but also in the months and years to come. While supports are flowing to address the short-term need, it is equally important to consider what resourcing is appropriate to best meet the long-term need – both for students, staff, and their families – in a nutshell: for the community.

As I have already mentioned, relationships are the key. A sense of community is formed by the relationships that extend through a space and healing is best supported within these relationships. This is why I say that short seminars, while undoubtedly useful in many ways, are no match for the healing which can come about through communities receiving support which is integrative and adaptive to their needs. Through being able to access consistent professional supports as a community, individuals and families will also be encouraged to develop personally relevant skills to cope in difficult times, now and in the years to come.

Information on the long-term supports needed to provide a full recovery for communities is already being shared through a plethora of mediums. However, much of this information is placed alongside articles highlighting the immediate needs and responses. I wonder how much traffic actually moves through the long-term articles, prompting people to consider the uncomfortable reality that natural disaster recovery is so much more than just the here and now.

The small and simple acts

I know that I am on the periphery of the bushfires, but I also know that I desperately want to help, and I know that the need is going to last so much longer than the fanfare of the media. Sometimes it starts with the small and simple acts. In my personal time, my first foray into regaining a sense of control within what felt like so much chaos was crocheting baskets and nests for injured wildlife and keeping an eye out for the opportunities to help out those affected within my local community in whatever way I can. This weekend I will spend my time down the coast responding to requests for tourism in fire-stricken areas, as reduced tourism can have further detrimental impacts upon these already heavily affected communities.

Professionally, I will keep looking out for ways that I can focus my time and energy on supporting the recovery of individuals, families, and communities, following my passion to create a better world, and advocating for those most in need. Over the coming months, I hope that I will be able to work within a project which provides the long-term supports needed for communities. I just hope that I will be able to use my skills over a number of years, rather than just months, to really build up communities into strong and resilient spaces once again.

For those of us working the daily 9-5 I hope you too can find opportunities within both your personal and professional lives to be the change you want to see in the world – it’s cliché but so very true.

Emilie Traeger

Social Worker

Australian Childhood Trauma Group