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‘National plan needed’ to deal with trauma of bushfires

Image: NSW Rural Fire Service, via Facebook

Psychological impacts will last for many years, says academic

Australia’s government health agencies must develop a national approach to trauma counselling for those affected by the country’s bushfire crisis, a University of South Australia academic has said.

Nicholas Procter, who leads the university’s mental health and suicide prevention research group, has warned that many people—including volunteer firefighters and those who have lost homes and family members—feel that they are facing an uncertain future.

He said the psychological impacts of the fires would “continue for many years to come”.

“The loss of life, property, familiar surroundings and estimated loss of millions of animals is devastating,” Procter said in a university statement.

“The immediate priority is to ensure survival and practical support—safety is essential. But once evacuations are complete and as news of the fires enters a denouement, the role of executive government will be critical in the weeks, months and years ahead.”

It is essential for federal and state government health agencies to work together to provide a national “trauma-informed” crisis response, he said.

“There must be fully integrated knowledge about the implications of trauma and its effects on policies, procedures and practices.”

So far, bushfires burning across four states have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and 27 people have died. Prime minister Scott Morrison has announced a $2-billion bushfire recovery fund to assist state governments. A further $18 million will be allocated to local governments.

Procter said it was important for those offering support services to understand the impacts of grief and loss.

“From an immediate crisis response to sustained ongoing trauma support, the entire system that surrounds individuals and communities, inclusive of the insurance industry and of local, state and federal government, must be geared towards realising the widespread impact of trauma,” he said.

“This includes health and human service workers, community and peer workers—anyone with a platform for making sensitive decisions and, where necessary, revisions in how they work.”

Procter suggested it was also important to involve people “with lived experience of mental health”, such as staff working in rural and regional mental health clinics.

“Being trauma-informed begins with trauma awareness, involves strengths-based approaches, facilitating choice and remaining flexible through trusting engagement,” he said.

“Cultural sensitivity is also an essential element. People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds caught up in the bushfire crisis will express trauma experience and injury in ways that are in keeping with their culture.”