The Challenge Of Disasters And Public Health Emergencies

Rising to the challenge of disasters and public health emergencies

From bushfires and floods to pandemics and acts of terrorism, life changing events can impact mental health in a number of ways. Understanding the impact of these large-scale emergencies on individuals, families, workgroups and communities, and supporting recovery from these is the focus of Phoenix Australia’s newly appointed Director, Disaster & Public Health Emergencies.


In the past 12 months, Australia has faced a challenging time with natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic taking a significant physical, social, financial and mental toll on communities. The effects of COVID-19 continue but just before the pandemic, Australians in some parts of the country were already exhausted from the devastating bushfires that destroyed homes and livelihoods.


Referred to unofficially as the ‘Black Summer’, fires swept through parts of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland. More than 3,500 homes and more than 18.5 million hectares of land were destroyed. Tragically, at least 34 people died.


But events such as this cause more than physical injuries – they can trigger a range of negative psychological reactions, too, with those involved needing support to navigate these effects.
The Australian Government launched the Mental Health Supports for Bushfire Affected Australians package and, as part of this initiative, Phoenix Australia has been engaged to deliver training to frontline workers, to help them better support community members and colleagues affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires across Australia.


“The training has been designed specifically for emergency services personnel, and general practitioners and their  practice staff to enhance their ability to support the recovery of community members from the bushfires. It will also promote their own resilience and psychological recovery from the bushfires and support the resilience and wellbeing of their teams and organisations,” says Alex Howard, who leads the project at Phoenix Australia.


Alex is also the newly appointed Director, Disaster and Public Health Emergencies. Alex has worked at Phoenix Australia for the past ten years and has taken an active role in growing and contributing to initiatives related to disaster and public health emergencies. Such events can include natural disasters like bushfires, floods, drought and pandemics, and human-caused disasters like large-scale industrial accidents, terrorism-related incidents, economic crises and threats to national security.


The bushfire training project is just one example of how Phoenix Australia is supporting the disaster and public health emergency field and the newly created role recognises the ongoing importance of this work.


We’ve been involved in responses to disasters, such as floods and bushfires and, more recently, we’ve supported organisations as they respond to COVID-19. I have a very strong interest in furthering our understanding of the mental health impacts of disasters and public health emergencies, especially how different groups are  impacted, so we can better prepare and respond to these events,” says Alex.


“We know most people recover by drawing on their own strategies, natural coping resources and support. But some people go on to develop longer lasting mental health impacts like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, and there are broader consequences that people need to deal with, too. In a natural disaster this can relate to rebuilding, managing insurance claims and loss of financial security. With COVID, we are starting to see the mental health impacts of longer-term issues like social isolation and loss of financial security.”


Phoenix Australia draws on evidence-based research and the many years of expertise of its team to help navigate the best possible preparations and responses to disasters and emergencies. In a bushfire setting a key priority  is working with community leaders, local bushfire recovery coordinators and health professionals to increase their capacity to work with the trauma-impacted individuals within their communities.


This year, during the pandemic, Phoenix Australia has worked with an international school in Hong Kong to help teachers develop skills so they can support students living with the pandemic restrictions. Work has also been undertaken to support healthcare workforces to better manage their stress and anxiety related to working in a COVID environment.


After the 2017 vehicle ramming attack in Melbourne’s Bourke Street, the Transport Accident Commission asked Phoenix Australia to look at how improvements could be made to its claims management process to better provide financial support to victims who needed help to cover the costs of physical and psychological treatment due to what they experienced during the Bourke Street attack. Phoenix Australia’s insights will help the TAC and establish international guidelines for mental and physical injury claims management resulting from large-scale and traumatic incidents.


I see this new role as harnessing the different areas of Phoenix Australia’s expertise – research, training and workforce development and policy development. It brings together those critical areas, and the experience and breadth of the work we do, to focus on these large-scale events,” says Alex.


“The focus is two-fold: on helping organisations, communities and government agencies to prepare for emergencies and helping them to respond quickly when disasters occur or as new issues emerge. In the case of COVID-19, that may be looking at how an organisation can equip its workforce to cope with the ongoing mental health impacts of COVID. In the case of bushfire, we can help a fire-impacted community or organisation identify what should be in place so when the next bushfire occurs a community can be better ready to respond.”


The events of 2020 have highlighted the importance of Phoenix Australia’s work in the disasters and public health emergencies space. The devastating bushfires of 2019-2020, floods, ongoing drought and COVID-19 highlight the need for government departments, local authorities, communities and health practitioners to be equipped to manage the mental health effects of such events.


“I have worked with many people who have experienced trauma and I’m always struck by how resilient people are, so I know there is hope and that people can recover,” says Alex.


“But improvements can be made in how we support people impacted by trauma and how we prepare organisations to better support a workforce at risk of being impacted by trauma. The positive factor is that organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the mental health effects of disasters and public health emergencies and we can help them manage that.”


Participate in the bushfire project training needs analysis or register your interest for the evidence-informed training at