Horrific footage of fires swallowing everything in their path, leaving behind homes reduced to rubble and the charred remains of animals have a real impact on the mental health of people watching from their television screens. The stress is worse for those who are actually in the eye of the fire.
Gerry Georgatos, trauma recovery expert and coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, has seen first hand the pain people go through when having to deal with such loss.
“There are elevated risks of trauma for those in rural and remote regions, especially those who have lost loved ones or who have come near to losing loved ones. Also vulnerable are those who have lost their homes and all their possessions,” Mr Georgatos told Neos Kosmos.
“This is worsened when they don’t have insurance, and it can be assumed that when they can’t afford the insurance, they can’t pay for counsellors who don’t come cheap at $100 per referral.”
Mr Georgatos is concerned about what the fires may trigger in people whose mental health was already affected by previous calamities, such as long periods of drought.
“It is difficult to assess or build a matrix which assesses who is most at risk as this would depend on their own resilience,” he said. “We should be treating all people with the presumption they need counselling and support.”
Experts are needed to help people heal. “You can rebuild what is lost, but it is also important for a person to move on from the trauma,” Mr Georgatos said. “You can grieve and languish in lament, but this is negative and your cognitive self can degenerate.”
The affect which the bushfires can have on children is another matter of concern. “Even toddlers under five have an awareness of what they have seen,” he said. “An important thing that any parent or adult can do to support others, particularly their young ones, is to keep a positive sense of self and contextuality.”
Mr Georgatos said that it is important for early intervention. “Media will have an expose in print or online and we can visually see what has occurred, but how it is understood and processed depends on how parents and elders discuss the situation,” he said, adding that parents should be aware of the long-term psychological toll that the disaster can have on children.
While fires are scary, children should be reassured that adults are looking out for their safety. “It is important to remember that, despite the disaster, there are also positive things happening as communities come closer together. One way to survive is to focus on these,” Mr Georgatos said, adding that there is no point saying that everything is fine when it is not, but it is important to emphasise what they have rather than what they have lost.
Apart from the personal and spectator trauma that people feel when looking at the destruction caused by the fires is the “collective trauma” that Australians are experiencing as a nation. “What is occurring is a phenomena,” Mr Georgatos said. “It angers people to see how our leadership is failing us in environmental issues, and this is wounding us in our collective sense. When people feel they are at risk, this diminishes their sense of self and they question the meaning of life and the importance of the central being.”
Mr Georgatos refers to “original sin” as the root cause of the trauma, which he labels to be “our leadership’s disregard for human, sentient life on the planet.”