Best response identified

Best response identified

22 June 2011

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New Zealand — Dishing out tranquillisers to stressed people happens when normal distress is wrongly diagnosed, Dr Margaret Grigg, the Australian nurse who led the Victorian Government’s mental-health response to the Black Saturday bushfires, says.

Dr Grigg and Wellington emergency response nurse Dr Frances Hughes gave a workshop at Dunedin Hospital recently on the appropriate emotional support to give the public after a disaster.

Dr Hughes helped with the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami and has been active in infection-control emergencies.

Dr Grigg said tranquillisers were often prescribed when people should instead be reassured their feelings were normal. Counselling, and giving people space and time, were the best responses.

Mental illness did increase after a disaster, but it often took a year or more to show up.

The delay often wrong-footed health authorities, which often expected an immediate increase.

About the time a small minority developed a mental-health problem, most people were “over it”.

The pair also gave a workshop in Christchurch. Dr Hughes said the mental-health response after the earthquake was impressive, with plenty of resources for counselling.

However, it was a shame a position equivalent to Dr Grigg’s after Black Saturday had not been created.

Dr Grigg agreed being “across” the situation helped, because it co-ordinated the response of different departments and agencies.

Asked what she would change about the Black Saturday response, Dr Grigg said it had not been recognised early enough that those outside the disaster zone could be seriously affected, and mental-health teams needed to find those who had left the area or had lost family members.

She also identified a slow response to child and youth needs, and lack of early recognition of the importance of GPs.

Dr Grigg said domestic violence had become more frequent and severe in households where it was already a factor.

The Black Saturday response included a special effort to prevent suicides, as evidence suggested they increased after a disaster.

More than two years since the bushfires that killed 173 people, the community had come a long way, but “for some people, this will always mark them”.

The quality of the rebuilding effort after any disaster had a big impact on people’s mental health.

Dr Hughes was pleased a mental-health nurse had been appointed in Christchurch to help vulnerable people whose houses had been damaged.

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