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Coping with the emotional impact of bushfires

As bushfires continue to rampage through regional communities across Australia, those who have been directly impacted may struggle to come to terms with their new reality.

Coping with the emotional impact of bushfires
Bushfire
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In support of those individuals and communities who are affected by bushfires, Beyond Blue has released a new online hub with information and advice for dealing with the emotional impact of the disaster, including information about the signs of emotional distress, tips for supporting children and young people, and links to useful resources.

Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman said the priority for those affected communities is firstly to cater for their essential needs; however, as time passes, the emotional effect of traumatic events such as this can linger.

“Right now, many people need the basics – shelter, food, water, fuel, cash – and physical safety. Others may be returning to their affected communities,” she said. 

“These are stressful times, and it’s important we’re aware of how these things can affect our mental health, both in the immediate and longer term.

“Often, signs of trauma and distress can take months and years to emerge, but it’s never too early to get informed about the difference between a normal and common reaction to disaster, and symptoms that indicate a need for additional professional support.”

Ms Harman said all individuals affected by fires are likely to experience emotional responses, but communities will be able to return and rebuild their lives.

“Community, mateship and humour are very much part of our national character, and these will be tremendous strengths as we support each other through these difficult times,” Ms Harman said.

“It’s very normal to struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings during and after a disaster like this, and these feelings can be intense and confusing.

“These feelings can be at their most severe in the first week after a traumatic event but, in most cases, fade over a month.”

When to get help

Anyone living in a bushfire-affected community is likely to have an emotional reaction, as their properties, jobs and the lives of community members and local firefighters are put at risk.

Ms Harman said emotional responses are normal and expected, but should they continue to linger on after life returns to a sense of normality, it might be time to seek help. 

Ms Harman highlighted that common emotional reactions to disasters include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, numb or detached
  • Constant tearfulness and intrusive memories
  • Irritability, difficulty sleeping or dreaming about the event
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Constantly questioning the actions they took during the disaster

For people who experience the above emotional reactions for more than one month after the disaster, Ms Harman recommends they speak to a GP or mental health professional.

She also noted that ongoing effects of traumatic events may take some time to develop and could be more intense than the common emotional effects of a disaster.

“The mental health impacts of bushfires can emerge within weeks, months or years. Knowing the signs and not ignoring them and seeking support early is an important step towards managing these issues.”

Beyond the common emotional responses, those suffering from the following symptoms are encouraged to seek professional support:

  • Avoiding things that bring back memories of what happened to the point where you’re unable to carry out day-to-day tasks 
  • Frequently being easily startled e.g. jumping when a door slams and then taking a long time to calm down
  • Feeling overwhelming fear for no obvious reason
  • Thoughts of ending your life or self-harm
  • Panic attack symptoms: increased heart rate, breathlessness, shakiness and dizziness

“The bushfires burning across Australia have claimed lives, decimated wildlife, destroyed property and led to lost livelihoods, so it is an incredibly challenging time for individuals, families and communities,” Ms Harman said.

“We’re all different, and we all react in different ways to trauma: there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond, so don’t tell yourself or others what you or they should be thinking, feeling or doing. If we come together and support one another, and make sure people have access to support when they need it, we can recover.”

Tips for coping with the emotional impact of bushfires

Beyond Blue has compiled a list of practical tips on how to deal with the emotional impact of a natural disaster, such as:

  • Spend time with people who care
  • Know that recovery times will differ for everyone
  • Find out about the impact of trauma and what to expect
  • Try to keep a routine and return to normal activities as soon as possible
  • Talk about your feelings or what happened when you’re ready
  • Do things that help you relax
  • Set realistic goals
  • Review and reward your progress, even small steps
  • Talk about the ups and downs of recovery

How to talk to children about the bushfires

Children’s reactions to trauma may be more severe than adults.

Common symptoms for children include withdrawal from family, friends and activities, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, worries about future events, or trouble concentrating and/or sleeping.

The following are some tips for talking to children about traumatic experiences such as natural disasters:

  • Tell your child these feelings are normal in the circumstances
  • Take their concerns and feelings seriously
  • Encourage them to speak about their feelings and listen to what they say
  • Try to return to regular routines as soon as possible
  • Allow children to play and enjoy recreational activities

Mental health support services are available 24/7 via the Beyond Blue Support Service by calling 1300 22 4636 or online at www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support

Further bushfire-related support and information can be found at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/bushfires-and-mental-health/