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Over the summer of 2019/20, many Australians were impacted by the devastating ‘Black Summer’ bushfires that tore across the country, burning more than 24 million hectares across eastern and southern Australia. This unprecedented and catastrophic disaster was quickly followed by the arrival of COVID-19 in Australia in January 2020.
Public health restrictions were implemented to reduce the spread and morbidity of the virus, which have significantly impacted the mental health and well-being of many of us. In the years since, multiple additional disasters have affected many of the same regions of Australia, including major storms and floods, subsequent bushfires, an earthquake and a mouse plague.
Following a disaster, initial feelings of shock, sadness and anger are common.
Those impacted may also experience mental, behavioural and physiological reactions such as difficulty concentrating or problem-solving, withdrawals, and feeling tense or “jumpy”. As with other potentially traumatic events, these feelings will typically subside for most as they draw on existing coping resources and the support of family, friends and other connections. For some, however, the effects may be more significant and can lead to mental health issues.
Although the long-term trajectories of individual disaster events have been well researched, there have been few studies that have directly explored the mental health impacts of multiple disasters. This includes the experiences and support needs of individuals and communities that have been impacted by disasters before or during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a vital need to understand how the pandemic shaped the mental health experiences of these communities and the unique challenges and barriers to recovery they faced.
Enter Phoenix Australia’s COVID-19 and multiple disasters project, run in partnership with the National Mental Health Commission. Aiming to give a voice to communities impacted by multiple disasters, we invited community members from South-East New South Wales, the Gippsland region in Victoria and regional South Australia to take part in online interviews and focus groups, to improve understanding of and responses to the mental health and social impacts of multiple disasters. The project comprised two main stages – a preliminary literature review and in-depth qualitative investigations involving interviews and focus groups in recently disaster-affected areas.
The study aimed to answer the following research questions:
Findings from the project revealed an initial sense of the community coming together following the bushfires, but that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the “normal response” to disasters, with many feeling hopeless and waiting for “the next bad thing to happen”.
Communities experienced escalating tensions and divisions regarding COVID vaccinations and restrictions, distribution of resources post-disaster and difficulties re-connecting socially. This was compounded by “red tape”, disconnected services and barriers to accessing support, including housing and financial challenges, which further complicated recovery.
Intersecting traumas and mental health difficulties were exacerbated by disasters and then the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and this cumulative effect has left help providers exhausted and burnt out.
These findings will provide valuable information by helping our organisation, others in the disaster mental health field and the National Mental Health Commission to understand the impacts and needs of those affected by floods and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as identify opportunities to improve responses to multiple disasters. Learn more on our Disaster Mental Health Hub.
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Phoenix Australia acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and pays respect to all Elders, past and present. We acknowledge continuing connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to land, water and communities—places of age-old ceremonies, of celebration and renewal—and their unique contribution in the life of these lands.
We are committed to fostering an environment in which the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their fellow Australians is characterised by a deep mutual respect, leading to positive change in our nation’s culture and capacity.
Phoenix Australia are experts in trauma-related mental health and wellbeing. For 25 years, we have been Australia’s National Centre of Excellence in Posttraumatic Mental Health and internationally recognised leaders in our field. We are committed to driving forward the mental health agenda both at home and abroad.Donate Now
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