Maintaining Mental health in bushfires disasters | We spoke with Dr. Marny Lishman (Psychologist), about the mental health challenges in dealing with the bushfire disaster. Those challenges not only affect victims but first responders and the families those affected.
What are the common emotions that people experience in these scenarios?
Everyone is different, but the more common emotions initially are shock, fear, helplessness, anger, disbelief, sadness and also guilt and sometimes shame. Often relief once it’s over, over comes over people too.
Are the emotions different for first responders and those affected by disasters? and in what ways do these manifest in people?
During natural disasters, peoples stress responses are turned on and they are in an automatic mode for survival reasons. It takes a while to wind down from this state and process everything that has happened.
How can members of the community better emotionally support those affected by bushfires?
Make them aware that you are there to support them and ask them what they need.Stress reduction needs to be a priority – so whatever you can do to assist with this – that being allowing them to sleep, rest, holding space for how they are feeling emotionally, taking the load of their work or other duties, giving them an ear to listen or just space to be quiet
What might be the key warning signs that people aren’t coping following a bushfire?
Again, everyone reacts differently. But general signs of traumatic stress including high anxiety, shaking, feeling jumpy, shallow breathing, stomach churning or nausea, feeling dizzy, ongoing fear, racing thoughts, unable to sleep, withdrawal from friends and family
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What community services are available to assist those people who have been traumatized by events such as bushfires? What do you believe are appropriate responses from the Government under these circumstances?
Community consultation is a must, as it is going to be different for every town affected. A needs assessment will need to take place and hopefully from the information gathered, the government can be informed about what is needed, and what is priority. Every individual community needs will be different and private and public services will be different. So evaluation of what services are available and hopefully the gaps can be filled quickly by necessary funding bodies. We also live in an age now where on-line resources are also available, so make sure you reach outside of your communities if you need.
For first responders, like the guys on the front line fighting fires, what would be your advice to them when this all comes to an end?
That they really put their mental health and wellbeing as priority. The healing from effects of disasters like this, take time. The effects of the enormity of the stress they were under can take weeks, months and sometimes years to come to terms with. It takes a lot longer when we push those emotions aside and not feel them. So I would urge first responders to accept their feelings and feel them, without pushing them aside and getting on with it. Nurture yourself and what you have gone through, and talk about when you are ready.
There’s some strong emotional responses from members of the public across social media regarding the bushfires and responsibility for the bushfires. It’s easy to engage in debate, particularly online, but is it the best thing for us to do from a mental health perspective? What’s your take on social media attacks where individuals are vilified by strangers? Surely it is not good for mental health?
In stressful times, people often look to blame and shame others – it just is a defence mechanism people use when they feel pain. Social media tends to exacerbate this, and what we see played out is what is going on in peoples heads without a filter or consequences. Amongst all the bickering and blaming in regards to the fires blazing across Australia, there are real people on the ground experiencing them. And even when the fires stop and peoples’ attention turns to something else going on in the world, the thousands who experienced the fires will still be living, and re-living these stories in their minds. That’s what we need to be focusing on. That’s where our energy needs to be focused. Spreading hate and blame doesn’t help anyone, but showing love and support will go so much further. The impact on the mental health and wellbeing of those in the communities affected needs to be something we all start talking about, and focusing our discourse on how we can support them to rebuild their lives. What we focus our energy on grows.
At this time it feels like there’s no end in sight for many individuals affected by bushfires (whether it be via direct impact, or via family or involvement as a first responder) how can we best ‘get through’ or encourage others to ‘get through’ these times from a mental health perspective?
I think apart from offering as much physical support on the ground, raising money as a nation to help out with all necessities now and in terms of rebuilding, offering emotional support – it’s connection. Making sure that these people that are suffering know that we are all connected as a community. People can feel this camaraderie, and knowing that they are not alone, assists in healing. In terms of individual traumatic stress recovery, it will mean minimising media exposure (so as not to re-live trauma), accept feelings and emotions and let them out, reaching out to other people, making stress reduction a priority.
Dr. Marny Lishman
Marny is a Psychologist, Personal Coach, Author, Keynote Speaker, Columnist & Media Commentator. She works with individuals and corporate groups to promote personal and professional growth, and speaks on a wide variety of topics to promote mental health and wellbeing. Marny provides media commentary on a variety of mental health topics on local and national TV, radio and in print. She is Channel 9’s Resident Psychologist in Perth, and is a columnist for Body + Soul. You can contact Dr Marny Lishman via her website
This article first appeared in Australiasian Mine Safety Journal as Mental Health in Bushfire Disasters