Bushfire survivors still without help

Bushfire survivors still without help

03 August 2010

published by news.smh.com.au

Australia — It’s 18 months since Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, but many of the survivors have yet to seek help for ever deepening emotional scars.

The debate over the final royal commission report into the Australia’s worst natural disaster has revived ghastly memories of the day when 173 people died.

Case workers report meeting traumatised inhabitants of fire-ravaged communities who are still profoundly troubled but have never sought counselling of any kind.

Others who did get in touch with counsellors immediately after that horrendous day all too soon had to turn their attention to rebuilding.

Only now are they beginning to understand the extent of the emotional trauma they have been through.

Clinical psychologist Dr Rob Gordon, who works with bushfire survivors, says it could take these people up to two years after the tragedy of February 7, 2009 to admit they need help.

He said 80 per cent of the population never access mental health services in their lifetime and consequently most disaster survivors believe relying on friends and family will be enough.

“It takes them a while to realise that this is bigger and more complicated than they may have first thought,” he told AAP on Tuesday.

“Now grief is starting to kick in, their sense of identity of who they are and their community has all changed.”

Many survivors admit the road to recovery is long and difficult but they also want to reach out to others who are still feeling their way.

“We are still hurting a lot,” said Jeni Nathanielsz this week, who lost her sister and brother in the fires.

“Every single day is a day that we have to climb some hurdle.”

Over $1 billion has been spent on recovery efforts through the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

Counselling services have already helped 5,500 people and nearly 1,200 households, but officials want those who haven’t sought help to come forward.

“We need people to know that the services are all still there, they can be accessed still, even for the first time,” Dr Gordon said.

No official numbers have been kept on those not seeking assistance, but bushfire survivors and the recovery authority both reported the issue as a concern.

The Red Cross conducted an outreach effort recently and located dozens of survivors who went without help because they did not want to be a burden, Dr Gordon said.

The final report into Black Saturday, released this week, likely has aggravated some survivors forced into revisit old memories.

Premier John Brumby is currently on a two-week consultation tour of bushfire areas to seek feedback on the report’s recommendations.

“I spoke to some of the bereaved families … and I think for them it is still a very, very traumatic time,” he told Fairfax Radio.

The government has backed 59 of 67 of the report’s recommendations but the state opposition wants all the recommendations endorsed quickly.

Dr Gordon says it is important for survivors to discuss the report’s recommendations rather than focus on its detailed analysis of what happened on Black Saturday.

“What we need is for this to be more of a discussion, be thinking about the meaning of things and debating rather than replaying footage of what it was like,” he said.

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