TRAUMA | 02 MAR 2020
Bushfires: We survived – But how do we pick up the pieces?
Recently a colleague and I had the privilege of being part of a community event in our regional town on the South Coast of NSW to thank the Firies, in particular, for what they have done for our whole region. It was a moving and emotional event.
We heard the experiences from both firefighters where this was their first ever Bushfire as well as Firefighters who had been in the service for over 30 years. Their stories were harrowing, in some ways surreal, and in all ways extraordinary. What struck me as I sat and listened was their sense of comraderie, as well as a sense – of no one is left behind. They were all working as a team, as one unit, and they all look after one another. To face death one day and then go back and return time and time again, takes courage and bravery.
But it isn’t without consequences, not only for the firefighters and other service people, but also their family, friends and wider community. As part of our responsibility as a regional community is to look out for one another and not be afraid to say “hey it seems you are really struggling- what can we do to help?” this may be as simple as a cup of tea or pointing them in the way of a psychologist.
Over the past few months I have also heard from other service people on the front line- they talk of the veracity and the speed of the fire, the devastation as well as the relief of saving lives and homes.
We have listened and supported people who have lost their homes, and only have their clothes on their back, of people who stood side by side with their neighbour to defend their houses as flames came roaring up the hills, people who came back to see by a miracle that their house was still standing, where blackened earth was right up to their porch. We have listened and shared the heartbreak of people whom have known those who have died.
We have spoken to children who were caught up in the evacuations, children of the firefighters, the volunteers who were manning these evacuation centres, handing out hugs as well as coffee and sandwiches, and volunteers helping the animals.
We have had clients who have heard stories from family and friends caught up in the fires and need a professional to debrief from. There are local businesses where some have lost between 70-90% of their turnover, and some will have to close or already have. In a small regional town this can have devastating consequences in the community. All these people and their families are directly affected by these fires. In many of the communities, this is almost 100% of the local community.
What has been evident is that almost everyone knows somebody or has been directly affected themselves by these bushfires. Grief and loss are consistent and permanenting features throughout our communities affected by these fires. This bushfire season has impacted on a scale that most people in the know say they have never seen.
We also know that people are still in the midst of trying to come to terms with what the bushfires have done to themselves and their community. They are surviving and just trying to get through day by day.
The community and wider Australia have been wonderful in supporting each other financially and emotionally over the past month. Regional and rural towns do this really well.
But what happens when the rest of NSW and Australia goes back to their normal, and the affected communities and people are still struggling. There are many interviews from ordinary people, that show people supporting one other, but it’s not enough. It is so overwhelming just dealing with their own loss, as well as shouldering others. Communities on the south coast will continue to struggle, particularly with the emotion and trauma for a while yet.
So, this is where professionals can help you, your family, your friends and community through this journey. It may not be until another month, another 2 months, or 6 months or a year before you or they might need help.
So, where do you go or help your family and friends go?
There are a number of different ways.
My advice: first stop if you can- talk to your GP– There are wonderful GPs in the area and
they will point you to a Psychologist or other experienced mental health professional to help.
There is EAP if you are employed in public services or other various private organisations.
If you are in the defence force, there is the Openarms counselling service that is provided free of charge.
And finally, the Federal Government has provided 10 sessions for the next 2 years to see an appropriate qualified psychologist. This is separate to the 10 session MHCP Medicare rebates (which you need to see your GP for) but can be used in addition. You can make an appointment with a psychologist directly without going through your GP, for a referral.