Australia A six-year study into the effects of the Black Saturday bushfires has found more than a quarter of those in high impact areas still suffered serious mental health issues years after the deadly event.
The Beyond Bushfires report surveyed more than 1,000 people who were impacted by the 2009 Victorian fires that killed 173 people and damaged or destroyed more than 2,100 homes.
Among the key findings was that three to four years after the fires, 26 per cent of people in the worst affected areas showed signs of mental health problems “beyond levels likely to be manageable and [which] may require professional support”.
The study’s lead researcher, and director of the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Lisa Gibbs, said it was important to take a long-term approach to disaster recovery.
“I think what we’ve done is perhaps underestimated the ongoing disruptions that occur after a disaster,” she told ABC News Breakfast.
“So you might cope with the original trauma event, but then there’s a change of accommodation, impact on relationships, change of income and that starts to bring people down.”
The Beyond Bushfires report also found some people experienced delayed onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that while anger helped some people cope initially, those regularly experiencing intense or explosive anger 3-4 years later were more likely to suffer poor mental health.
However, Professor Gibbs said the communities devastated by the fires had also shown incredible strength.
“Having close personal ties is really important, but also being part of local community groups.”
The report found that family members were often seen to be the main source of support over more formal services and that as a person’s involvement in community groups increased, their mental health improved.
“We’re working with state government very closely and other agencies like Australian Red Cross and Emergency Management Victoria to think about both ends of the disaster context,” Professor Gibbs said.
“Certainly in terms of recovery, what can support recovery processes, but also thinking about building that resilience in advance.” ‘Don’t forget the children’
The Beyond Bushfires report found the impact of the Black Saturday disaster had a particularly lasting effect on children, yet Professor Gibbs said they were sometimes overlooked.
“But what we found was that those impacts were apparent.”
Kinglake resident and police officer, Jason Gaffee, lived through the fires and said he helped his wife and two young sons deal with the trauma.
“I guess the biggest thing for me in the aftermath was the breakdown of the community and some of those social infrastructures that were there to help children and families cope,” he said.
“When you lose a school or a preschool centre, or, for example, a cricket club stops functioning as effectively as it has been, that breakdown of those social structures does impact long-term.”
He said he saw the children of the affected areas as crucial to rebuilding the social cohesion.
“I speak for the Kinglake community, I think that we are moving forward and I think that the vast majority of the residents now are prepared for what could possibly come in the future.”