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Rigorous and ongoing training, support from higher levels of management and ensuring that staff are aware of available support are key elements of effective peer support programs for those affected by disaster.
Putting in place adequate support for peer support workers and destigmatising seeking support are also vital parts of the puzzle according to Australian experts who have reflected on the lessons to be learned following the 2019/20 bushfires.
The experts and industry leaders – Professor David Forbes – Director of Phoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons AFSM – former NSW Fire Commissioner and leader of Resilience NSW, and Todd Wehr, Director of Queensland Ambulance Service staff support program, Priority One, have shared their insights in a Phoenix Australia webinar.
Hosted by Nicole Sadler, Phoenix Australia’s Head Policy and Practice, the webinar probed the key lessons to be learned about peer support following the catastrophic bushfire season.
The fires burned more than 46 million acres, destroyed at least 3,500 homes and saw 34 people lose their lives. Many people living, working and volunteering in those bushfire communities were affected emotionally, physically and socially, said Professor Forbes.
“First responders show higher rates of mental health issues than the general population with about one in three experiencing very high psychological distress. Part of the first responder role is being exposed to trauma and, over time, that trauma accumulates and can result in burnout, anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts and problem alcohol use,” says Professor Forbes.
The significant impacts of the 2019/20 bushfires highlighted the importance of having well-organised, accessible and effective peer support programs in place. A key plank in this system is fostering opportunities for people to build relationships and trust with peer support workers so when people need help, they feel safe and comfortable to ask for it.
“Relationships and trust are critical to allowing people to share thoughts and feelings in a safe environment. That encourages people to give themselves permission to open up and talk and to share with one another,” said Commissioner Fitzsimmons.
“We have to destigmatise connecting with peer support programs. A chaplain I knew put this very succinctly when he said that we have to make sure people know that we are not going in to read their head, but to understand their heart and learn what we can do to support each other.”
Mr Wehr said peer support workers are a vital bridge in enabling people who need professional help being able to access health professionals who can provide a greater level of support. They can also help break down the stigma of getting support.
But Mr Wehr said it is important to recognise that peer support workers themselves need support, such as ongoing training and mentoring.
“Peer support workers need ongoing support so they can continue to be peer supporters, so they can check in if they are not sure about something, and so they can feel confident in what they do,” Mr Wehr says.
“Someone needs to drive that and systems also need to be in place before a disaster happens so peer support workers who may also be impacted by that disaster have a safety net underneath them.”
Professor Forbes agrees that rigorous training for peer support workers is important so they feel confident that the support they deliver is best practice.
“Data and new evidence change and need to be incorporated through ongoing training – lack of training is one of a number of challenges for peer support programs,” he says.
“Programs also need support from higher levels of management, and they need to be promoted so people know help is available and they know how to access it in a timely manner.”