Prioritising mental health after tragic bushfires

Andrew Constance on ABC’s Q&A.

The Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP), a project run by the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH), have created a resource to help communities and individuals who are struggling in the aftermath of recent bushfires.

The ‘Coping with the impact of bushfire’ resource lists various normal responses to a bushfire, stating it is common for people to “feel stressed, experience memories of the fire, feel anxious as the body goes into ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode in response to keeping themselves safe, experience sadness, anger or guilt that they couldn’t do more, [and/or] have difficulty sleeping.”

RAMHP suggests that individuals should utilise self-care strategies to help them cope and relieve any feelings of anxiety, stress or sadness. They encourage bushfire-affected individuals to “spend more time with family and friends, take time out but don’t isolate yourself, accept help when it’s offered, understand you are not alone in your experience, write down your worries and concerns, express your feelings in your own time and way, know you won’t have all the answers, [and] try not to take big risks or make life changing decisions until you are ready.”

RAMHP says that while it is normal to be “distressed or upset” after experiencing bushfires and dealing with any losses which have occurred as a result, individuals should seek the help of a mental health professional if they are experiencing:

• “Extreme feelings of distress,
• emotional reactions that are lasting longer than a few weeks,
• distress that is interfering with your ability to carry out day-to-day activities,
• withdrawal from usual relationships or avoiding pleasurable activities,
• feelings of overwhelming fear for no apparent reason,
• panic symptoms,
• avoiding things that bring back memories, so much that you can’t carry out your normal activities,
• feelings of excessive guilt,
• using alcohol or other substances to cope,
• a loss of interest in the future,
• [and/or] thoughts of self-harm or suicide.”

Andrew Constance, Member for Bega and NSW Minister for Transport and Roads, highlighted mental health during a discussion on Monday night’s episode of Q&A on the ABC, which was dedicated to the bushfires. Although his house was saved, the South Coast resident had to evacuate on New Year’s Eve and the experience has taken a visible toll on him, with him saying his life will “never” be the same after this.

“I’ve cried, I’ve been hugged, I’ve been loved, but the trauma of this is so profound and it’s affecting thousands of people across our regions and we need help,” he said.

“I saw something that day which I was never, ever expecting to experience. I’ve seen bushfires on the farm as a kid. I’ve seen it spot across our countryside, but not like this.”

“I’m going to need proper counselling, absolutely Hamish [host of Q&A] – I’m going to need proper counselling.”

If you are struggling and need to speak with someone, RAMHP suggests asking your GP for advice, a Mental Health Treatment Plan or a referral, seeing a specialised mental health clinician such as a psychologist, accessing online counselling (such as Beyond Blue, Red Cross or Headspace), or accessing telephone support services (such as the NSW Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 224 636 or MensLine on 1300 78 99 78).

For more information and access to resources, please visit www.ramhp.com.au.