Australia — After surviving one of Western Australia’s biggest bushfires, the town of Northcliffe now faces a spike in suicides and suicide attempts in the community.
The remote South West town was in the direct line of fire when a massive blaze tore through nearly 100 hectares of bush in February.
The townspeople were on tenterhooks for several nights, as the wind threatened to send the fire through the town, but the work of firefighters and some favourable wind changes meant the town was spared.
The ABC has been told two locals died by suicide in the weeks after the fire and several others have attempted to take their own lives.
Cathy Rabbitt, who runs the Northcliffe Community and Family Centre, said the community had banded together to work through the anxiety they experienced during the fires, which was compounded when a second bushfire got out of control just weeks later.
“There was the second fire which brought back all those fears and feelings to people again,” Ms Rabbitt said.
Ms Rabbitt said the two recent suicides had been a blow for the small community, already under pressure.
“Then to have the suicides on top of that, well yes the compound effect was enormous for the town,” she said.
“And I think it was just, it seemed to be one thing after the other so it was very difficult.”
Suicides another disaster for the town
Manjimup Shire president Wade DeCampo said the impact on the small town had been huge.
“Especially after a major event like the fire, to have two suicides essentially within a week was again another disaster for town,” Mr DeCampo said.
He said it was important to ensure extra support was available for town to recover long term and find a sense of balance.
“Interestingly enough, after an event there seems to be very little support for the health of the community,” he said.
“Once the flames die down, people generally leave you to your own devices to sort it out.”
Mr DeCampo said the shire had been trying to secure funding to bring in extra help to support the mental health of people in the community.
“There was very little support in relation to that and in fact we had to drag some of the agencies kicking and screaming to the table once we had the incidents that took place down there,” he said.
Mr DeCampo said Northcliffe needed a full-time counsellor based in the town for at least 12 months, but there was no funding available.
A spokeswoman for Mental Health Minister Helen Morton said while there was no-one based in Northcliffe, visiting support workers from the Department for Child Protection and Family Support were available by appointment.
Ms Rabbitt said more help was needed.
“That is a great service that’s being offered but once again it is a process that people have to go to,” she said.
“If there was someone here in Northcliffe that we could somehow or another they could be on call, I don’t know how that would work, but that would be the ideal situation, that someone can just come in and deal with it there and then. I think that’s very important.
“Because we’re so isolated, if somebody is in trouble and they can’t get immediate help then where is that going to lead.
“The closest is Manjimup and if someone’s struggling, the last thing they want to do is drive an hour to get to that appointment.”
Regions at greater risk of mental health issues: Salvation Army
Harriet Farquhar from the Salvation Army said it was important to support people after a natural disaster.
“It challenges and stretches them in ways they may not have encountered before and it has significant ongoing effects for people,” she said.
Ms Farquhar said regional areas were at greater risk of experiencing mental health issues.
“Suicide is having an incredible impact on many of our small communities and we know that it’s worse in rural communities,” she said.
But she said natural disasters such as bushfires did not necessarily push people over the edge, and that it could in fact have the opposite effect.
“My understanding of the research is that suicides actually tend to drop following a natural disaster as the community rallies together, people seem to gain strength from it and resilience and they keep going,” Ms Farquhar said.
“It’s often further out from a natural disaster that the underlying mental health issues start to re-emerge.”
Local farmers say they expect they will feel the effects of the fire for some time.
As they have been consumed with rebuilding fences, the daily farm duties have fallen by the wayside.
Debbie and Max Rudd grow avocados on their Northcliffe property and while their avocado trees were spared, they have been set back.
“Just because the fire’s out, doesn’t mean everything’s gone,” Ms Rudd said.
“Like ourselves, we’re probably a good year behind in what we’re doing; now we’re not devastated, we’re not in a terrible position, but it’s difficult at times.”
Ms Rudd criticised the State Government’s natural disaster declaration and offer of assistance.
“The Government was nice to have a visit but it would’ve been even nicer if when the natural disaster was announced, that we actually qualified for some of the funding, which none of us have as far as I know,” she said.
Mr Rudd agreed but said they had to just get on with it.
“At this moment, all the farmers should be out fighting for it but at the same time they’ve got to put their farms back together one way or another,” he said.
Volunteer organisation Blaze Aid has been based in Northcliffe, helping property owners like the Rudds rebuild kilometres of fence lines that were destroyed in the fire.
Ms Rudd, who made lunch for volunteers every day, said the support stretched further than labour.
“Having Blaze Aid here has just been tremendous, not only because they’ve helped us with our fences but because they’ve become good friends,” she said.
But she said some others could not afford the materials to rebuild that infrastructure, despite having the free labour available.
“So everyone has just done exactly what they can. And the community – it’s a strong community, it always has been. It’s a nice place to be,” Ms Rudd said.
She said she felt like things were starting to get better.
“The last two weeks have been the most different I’ve felt, things have just started to settle down, sleeping’s getting back to normal and people are starting to get about their business,” she said.
“But very much aware that everything’s not as it seems.”