Young adults and disaster

Young adults and disaster

25 October 2011

published by

Australia — A study has looked specifically at the experience of young adults in the wake of the 2009 Gippsland bushfires.

Natural disasters of fire and floods have had devastating impacts on Gippsland residents in recent years. In the wake of the disasters there has been much focus on recovery and providing assistance to those who were hardest hit.

But until now, there hasn’t been any quantitative work done to look at how effective that recovery assistance has been.

Gippsland researcher Rouve Jan Forbes has been looking at the experience of young adults in the wake of the 2009 Gippsland bushfires.

Ms Forbes, who is a health professional living in the Traralgon South area – which was affected by the Black Saturday fires, says she had noticed that young adults who were a strong presence in the community before the fire weren’t attending recovery events.

“When I started to read up on young adults experience of bushfires I found that there really wasn’t much research even globally. And in fact the World Health Organisation had recommended that there be research with that particular age group – just understanding what their needs are.”

Ms Forbes shared some of her findings with Celine Foenander on the ABC Gippsland Mornings program. She also provided ABC Gippsland with the following notes on her study.

A summary of findings from ‘In the wake of the 2009 Gippsland fires: Young adults’ perceptions of post disaster social supports’

Research work by Rouve Jan Forbes, Dr Rebecca Jones, Dr Andrea Reupert Monash University Department of Rural and Indigenous Health.

Participants believed that how an individual, community or service provider framed loss – for example, in terms of property ownership or householder status – had a significant impact on entitlement and how needs were met. Importantly, how we frame young adults as either adult or adolescent impacts on how their needs are met.

What helped? What was most meaningful? What could be improved?

Young adults’ experience of social supports as being helpful or unhelpful depended on the degree to which the supports enhanced acknowledgment, entitlement, affiliation, communication, engagement in recovery process and amelioration of displacement in relation to family, friends, and community.

The central theme of all the interviews was the importance of their experience and loss being acknowledged as outlined below.


Participants felt that their loss was not fully acknowledged but was subsumed into their parents’ experiences.

“People always ask how your parents are going because they think they’ve got the stress of rebuilding … but that stress flows on through the family … it still affects you even though you don’t have any decision making power.”

“You are never really a full bushfire victim … you’re someone who lived at home whose parents went through the bushfires…”

“According to everyone I didn’t lose my home and I wasn’t impacted because it was my parents’ house.”

What would have been most helpful? Recognition that something had happened to you. Just acknowledging that you are different to your parents. We didn’t lose our home but we lost a lot and didn’t get a lot of recognition.

The following sub-themes further expand on this broader theme.


Participants found that because of their age and financial dependence on parents, they were often ineligible for instrumental support services such as case management, material aid and educational support and Blue Referral Cards which enabled access to instrumental support were generally issued to households rather than individuals.

“Early on I remember being told I wasn’t entitled to anything because it was one item per family … so they took it back … I saw that happening to others … you don’t want to ask again.”

Participants felt that older members of the community overshadowed them in the community recovery groups.

Social Supports

Participants found that the most meaningful supports after the fires were their informal networks of friends and family

“We were all okay because we were all together. That was a big thing for us”

However, participants also described family discordance.

“It was interesting having three generations under one roof … there was a lot of butting heads … you know people you know cop the worst …”


Many participants greatly valued direct and comprehensive communication and felt that they were overlooked when information about post-bushfire supports was exchanged.

The media ignored us.

“I think it would have been important having things addressed to the young adults ….to feel like …they are being acknowledged as well.”

“Having mobile phones replaced earlier … the internet; Facebook was handy, to just type in a name and see if they were okay.”

They also found that they too, were failing to communicate adequately to avoid upsetting their parents.


Participants found that their position in relation to others and to their own identity changed and that they felt alienated from others.

“You’re in a world down here where you don’t exactly fit … but in Melbourne no one understands it … so you’re spending time in these different worlds putting on different masks.”

“I felt like screaming at everyone. I didn’t like being treated like a little kid … not by family … but by the services.”

“Deep down it did bother you … you do need to get your own identity back.”

Participants acknowledged the fires as a catalyst for change, with some moving away from home and others becoming involved in new activities such as bush regeneration.


In examining social supports post bushfire this study highlights the need to place acknowledgment of loss at the centre of a psychological recovery framework.

Moreover, the study demonstrates the need to address the existing nomenclature mismatch between adolescence and early adulthood and re-situate societal and institutional framing of young adults’ loss.

Based on this study and the literature generally, several recommendations can be made.

First, policy and service providers need greater flexibility in service age criteria and with this, a need to revise interpretations and definitions of adolescence, youth and early adulthood.

This could be addressed by extending ‘youth’ services post disaster to include the WHO 18-27 years to allow for the underlying developmental paradox that excludes young adults from essential supports.

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