Disaster Mental Health

When disaster strikes, emergency services workers should remember to look after themselves too

Disasters, both from natural and man-made hazards, have an impact on the emotional and mental health of the people and communities affected. But what about the people who provide the emergency response? The firefighters, paramedics, police, and other emergency services personnel, including the volunteer responders, are equally exposed to the damaging mental health effects of disasters.


Australia is currently experiencing what is being described as an ‘unprecedented’ bushfire season. Millions of hectares have been burnt in multiple states. With the hot and dry conditions experienced across Australia this year, the fire season is expected to be long and to take a toll on a stretched emergency services workforce.


Working in the emergency services inevitably brings exposure to potentially traumatic events such as the threat of injury or death to others or to oneself, and in the case of disasters, the devastation wrought on communities, wildlife, livestock and property.


Most emergency services personnel enjoy their work and the opportunity it brings to protect communities and help people in need, and they accept that bad days are part of the job.


They are generally resilient and are able to cope well with traumatic experiences by drawing on their natural coping strategies, their training, and the support of family and friends. However, the cumulative strain of experiencing many different traumatic events can take its toll on some people, leading to ongoing difficulties.


As Billy Mac, Firefighter FRNSW (Retired), explains:

“For 24 years I rode the trucks of NSW Fire Brigades and Fire & Rescue NSW. I was 6’3” and bullet proof. I was as strong and courageous as I was meant to be in my job as a professional firefighter. But I now know the strongest and bravest thing I did in 24 years was to put my hand up and say ‘I’ve got a problem’. That problem was posttraumatic stress disorder.”


Looking after yourself

If you work in the emergency services, or provide volunteer support when disaster strikes, these simple strategies can make a big difference in helping you to cope with a very stressful, and often distressing job. You may not be able to achieve all of these on the busy days, but think about how you schedule activities on your rest days.

  • Monitor your stress levels – if you start to get overwhelmed, taking a break for even a few minutes can help
  • To help yourself calm down and refocus, try quick controlled breathing or grounding exercises
  • Keep in touch with people you like being with
  • Look after yourself: eat healthy food, get some exercise and get as much rest and sleep as possible
  • Make the most of your breaks at work
  • Manage your time well
  • Try to schedule at least one enjoyable activity each day
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Don’t take on too much and over-commit yourself
  • Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to make you feel better
  • Make time for relaxation – listen to music, try meditation or yoga – whatever works for you


Looking after your colleagues

If you notice that someone you work with doesn’t seem to be coping, there are some things that you can do to help.

  • Offer practical assistance, for example, offer a lift home from work
  • Offer to listen, if they want to talk (but don’t force them to talk)
  • Suggest that they speak to their supervisor, or contact a workplace counsellor or a GP.


Getting help

If you or someone else is concerned about how you are coping with the stress of your job, it is worth talking to a doctor or workplace counsellor. They will be able to determine if there is a problem, what the best approach might be, and provide referrals to a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, if need be.


Find more information, fact sheets, videos and helpful resources in the Recovery section of our website. We also have resources specifically related to bushfires.


For immediate assistance call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for confidential 24-hour counselling and referrals.