Professor Lisa Gibbs: A lot of the evidence and key learnings I’ll be sharing with you today do come from the 10 years beyond bushfire study. And as we go through, I will provide a brief reference to particular research papers and sometimes to reports from this study, and other studies in Australia and internationally. So, if there’s anything where you’d like to follow up and look up the original source, I’ll provide the details of those right at the end of the presentation. And look, it might seem strange for me to be talking about bushfires when so many of you will be joining us because of your experiences and concerns about the impact of floods, but don’t be alarmed, it is still relevant because what we actually find is that the human impacts of these major disasters are actually remarkably consistent because of the exposure to danger, to loss and disruption and that’s really what I’ll be focusing on today and particularly of course the social experiences.
There are many layers of social connections that we all have. Sometimes it’s at the individual level with someone we’re very close to. And that in in terms of the social capital literature is referred to as bonding capital so that’s with close family and friends.
And then as you can see in this image on the right, we have so many connections with networks of people and that may be through the workplace through sports clubs through social groups and we often refer to those connections as bridging capital.
And then those other links to public institutions and to government and to funding resources and those sorts of external opportunities that are relevant during a disaster recovery we typically refer to that as linking capital. And today I’ll be focused primarily on bonding capital and bridging capital.
I guess you know the key message that comes through in our research and research that’s been conducted internationally across all different types of disaster experiences, is that social ties matter when we’re thinking about the influence on mental health and wellbeing. We can see that social ties and social interactions have a huge impact on how people cope in the days, months, years after a disaster experience. One aspect of that is that the more people you are close to generally, is associated with how you cope and has a protective effect if you like. And it’s obviously more complicated than that but that’s our starting point.
Now the reality in a disaster-affected community is that people don’t stay still. It’s a disrupted space and so your neighbour may be living in temporary accommodation somewhere else, your babysitter and their family may be staying with relatives, you’re walking buddy might have decided to move permanently to another location.
And so the social networks that you typically would rely on for emotional and practical support after such an upheaval may not be available and so we do find in our research that for those people who have experienced that that loss of their social supports they are at greater risk of depression in the following years after a disaster. So that’s something that we need to be concerned about and it’s really actually a pretty emotional decision for those people who do decide to relocate because there’s an awareness that you are leaving people behind in your community who may have been counting on you.
But the positive is that the opportunity that local groups can offer – we found that for those people who were involved in in one or two community groups or organizations, and that can be of any sort of type, it might be the local SES, or the cricket club, or the art group. People who are connected to those local groups showed more positive outcomes in terms of mental health and well-being three, five, and even ten years after their disaster experience.
So, this is a really compelling finding. We do have to be cautious because we found that for those who belong to three, four or more groups the benefits can stat to be outweighed by the burden and often those people who are involved in multiple groups are also the same sort of people who take on leadership roles for those groups. So we do have to recognize the importance of sharing the load.
The other thing we found in relation to group membership if you go to the next slide this is a really interesting one if people live in a community in which many people belong to local groups the benefits are not just experienced by the group members but they start to spill over to other people living in that community so there’s something about the social connections perhaps a level of trust in the community that starts to have a collective benefit and that’s such an important element in the disaster recovery experience. And there’s been some research, it’s you know, people are still trying to resolve whether having those things in place before the disaster happened, makes a difference afterwards.
And there’s this fabulous paper, and I’ll give you the details at the end, that Australian colleagues have published in 2018, Renee Zahnow and colleagues following the Brisbane floods which has a look at these questions that’s a great summary of the literature. It has a look at where the personal contacts and neighbourhood connections pre-disaster – translating to benefits after disaster.
Now in their study they showed benefits at the personal level but they didn’t carry through for the group membership but we need to be cautious about that, and they acknowledge this as well, that there may be other factors there and that may be because there was fabulous supports provided to those communities but also there are lots of groups that emerge after the disaster happened and some of those are organized as part of the recovery and some of them just happen naturally because people connect through the shared experience and then form some sort of group going forward.
So that’s a really important protective factor I guess, if you’re thinking about recovery experiences. And it also represents an opportunity for those people to potentially influence recovery decision making because they’re connected through their networks or through these groups and there’s usually some effort to canvas ideas and contributions to recovery decision making.
But the flip side of that is that if you’re not connected or if someone’s been marginalized pre-disaster and then that continues after the disaster, that means their needs are not reflected in the recovery decision making. And Daniel Aldrich did a fabulous paper on this having a look at the flip side of social capital. Fabulous if you’re in the group but you can really miss out if you’re not and you’re marginalised from decision making. And he shares an example following hurricane Katrina in the U.S. where there were plans to build temporary accommodation right in the centre of town, close to all the resources. But the people who still had their homes and properties weren’t really happy with the notion of that being, you know, essentially on their front doorstep and so they advocated strongly for it to be shifted to the boundaries out of town which happened and so all these people living in temporary accommodation already disadvantaged then were isolated because they had really poor access to services and other resources. So something to be mindful of that flip side of those social connections.
And the other thing that we do know is the potential over time for these social supports to deteriorate and so that can be at a personal level. People just get exhausted, we’ve got a paper that that my colleague Lou Harms led on that was looking at stresses and supports following the Black Saturday bushfires and people named friends and family as their greatest source of support in the years afterwards. But they also named them as their greatest source of stress and the main reason for that was that they were just really worried for them and that’s the you know you having many social ties is protective but that’s also many people you care about that you may be worrying about and over time that can become a little overwhelming. And at the community level you can also see over time a fracturing of those connections and shared decision-making processes and so on as people do get tired and frustrated and disagree and start to step away because it all gets a bit hard.
And so, these are patterns we see. The initial social mobilisation and then potentially social deterioration and that’s something that’s just an important consideration in thinking about what might be needed to support the recovery process. And so, if you look at the next slide we really advocate for being thoughtful about what – well that’s a bit distorted there sorry, what support can be provided to caregivers so that they know how to support their loved ones. They feel like they have the capacity to provide support and also understand about self-care strategies what they might need themselves and for community leaders helping them in the important role they have in running groups that others are benefiting from. Thinking about succession planning, thinking about delegation of responsibilities, and thinking about how to manage anger and conflict that can come through in those shared discussions.
And also thinking about providing spaces for people to gather and this is a beautiful community hall that was built in Calignee following the bushfires and so many places are really thoughtful of rebuilding these community spaces so everyone can kind of come and use it in different ways. And that coming together is really valuable but we also need to think about the fact that it’s a very rare community where everybody gets along all the time and you know I provide space for differences as well, and it may be useful to have smaller breakaway spaces in other locations because it might be that having time apart from each other can enhance harmony in the same way as coming together can for different reasons and at different times.
So just to summarise, the simple message which I’m sure everybody here is well aware of is that social connections are such an important element (in) supporting mental health and wellbeing. And I haven’t noted here that there are some people who are not quite as social but they will find other ways to restore themselves and that can often be through connection to the natural environment.
But social currents through a community particularly after a disaster can be complex. They can change and shift and people are not able to provide what they might normally able to be able to provide or access and so being conscious of those changes, recognising that that’s normal, it’s part of the disaster experience, and so really building that consciousness into the recovery planning process.
And just something I’ll share with you before I step away and that is a resource that we’ve developed called the ‘Guide to disaster recovery capitals’ and that’s meant to be a resource for recovery workers but it’s also really suitable for community members to use. It’s just a really accessible summary of what we know about what’s likely to support recovery and it looks at that in terms of the different types of capitals or resources that you need to draw on. And it’s recognising that there’s an interconnectedness between social capital, financial capital, natural capital, political, built cultural, human capital. All of these things are going on at the same time and are influencing each other and so that resource, the guide to disaster recovery capitals, and these other resources that are accompanying it, can help to navigate through that process.
So if we go to the final slide you can see that oh you can’t read it on the screen if you’ve got a screen as small as mine but it’s a resource that we’ll be sharing with everyone who’s participated here today and that provides links to our beyond bushfires research our guide to disaster recovery capitals and just those key papers that I’ve referenced in the presentation today. Thank you.
Added from the presentation:
Resources and references
Beyond Bushfires and related disaster research –
Guide to Disaster Recovery (ReCap) & other resources –
Aldrich DP, Page-Tan C, Fraser T. A Janus-faced resource: social capital and resilience trade-offs. In: Trump BD, Florin M-V, Linkov I, editors. IRGC resource guide on resilience (vol 2): Domains of resilience for complex interconnected systems. Lausanne, CH: EPFL International Risk Governance Center, 2018:13 – 9.
Dibley G, Mitchell L, Ireton G, Gordon R, Goron M. Government’s role in supporting community-led approaches to recovery. Department of Health and Social Security, 2019.
Hartz-Karp J. Harmonising divergent voices: sharing the challenge of decision-making. Public Administration Today 2004; 1:1-15.
Kaniasty K. Social support, interpersonal, and community dynamics following disasters caused by natural hazards. Curr Opin Psychol 2020; 32:105-9.
Zahnow R, Wickes R, Taylor M, Corcoran J. Community social capital and individual functioning in the post-disaster context. Disasters 2019; 43:261-88.