Recognising the short and long term consequences of the bushfire emergency

St John of God Health Care welcomes the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt of an investment of $76 million for the provision of immediate mental health services for bushfire affected communities and first responders.

14 Jan 2020

St John of God Health Care bushfire and mental health

14 January 2020

The bushfire emergency that has had unfolded this summer has taken a very heavy toll with 28 lives lost (as at 14 January 2020), thousands of homes and properties destroyed and the devastation of the vast loss of livestock, native animals, infrastructure and habitat.

We extend our gratitude to the thousands of volunteers and professional first responders, and other support people who have worked tirelessly to protect lives, property, and animals. 

As a provider of mental health care to the first responder community across the past 30 years we have seen the costs that can arise from emergency service work and from exposure to highly traumatic events. 

The announcement by the Prime Minister recognises the importance of considering mental health in bushfire recovery. 

The complexities of providing mental health support need to be carefully worked through to ensure that these resources are matched to the needs of the individuals and communities affected. 

It is important to note that universal interventions in the early period post-disaster have been found to be counter-productive as individuals and communities will all have different ways addressing the losses and challenges of disaster and its aftermath. 

Indeed research has shown that the recovery environment can be as important in promoting recovery and protection from mental health impairment as the impact of the initial disaster. 

Individuals and communities will require many different forms of post-disaster support all of which should work together to support mental health and recovery. 

We also recognise that individuals and communities’ who manage to push through in the short-term drawing on their personal strengths and resources may experience challenges across the longer term once attention has moved on and yet the long arm of trauma and loss still persists. 

For this reason, we encourage a long term perspective when considering the mental health and wellbeing of affected individuals. 

St John of God Richmond Hospital Zachary Steel
Professor Zachary Steel Psychiatrist

About the Author

Professor Zachary Steel is the St John of God Professorial Chair of Trauma and Mental Health, a partnership between St John of God Richmond Hospital, the School of Psychiatry UNSW and the Black Dog Institute. He has worked in the field of traumatic stress for over 20 years as a researcher and clinician, examining the prevalence, social determinants, and intervention models for mental health problems across diverse communities and settings with a particular focus on traumatic stress, forced displacement, conflict and complex emergencies.