TAKING care of your physical and mental health isn’t always the first priority when dealing with a natural disaster,but it can be first step towards true recovery.
Camilla Kenny, a co-ordinator with the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program, was one of the workers involved in the response to and recovery after the Sir Ivan bushfires.
The bushfire burned for almost a month, tearing through 55,000 hectares of farming land across 138 properties, destroying more than 5000 head of sheep and cattle, and wrecking 5700 kilometres of fencing.
Camilla, who’s based at Dubbo, worked in the recovery centre set up in Coolah for two weeks following the fire, with the goal to provide a one-stop shop for the community.
“I already knew a lot of people in the community through my work in the area so I was able to act as a link to mental health support,” she said.
Camilla is now the chairwoman of a health and wellbeing subcommittee, which looks at what different agencies can do to work together and support people in the affected communities.
“Through this, various activities have been organised such as workshops in local schools on stress and coping strategies, and information sessions and social events in the community,” she said.
“We’ve also got rural support workers with DPI (NSW Department of Primary Industries) who are working with individual farmers on their recovery and working out what they’re eligible for and helping to link them to supports.”
Mental health information is also shared in a regular newsletter that’s been set up since the fires, which includes agricultural advice.
Because the immediate focus for people is getting on with the job to rebuild and get back to normal, mental health can often take a back seat, Camilla said.
“This can go on for a long time - we’ve found that there are still people impacted by the Coonabarabran fires a few years ago.
“The physical infrastructure might be going back up, and it might look like everything’s fine and things are going great, but at a personal, emotional level, people are struggling, so we’re there to make sure they know where to get help.”
The recovery from the Sir Ivan bushfires is also being hampered by dry conditions.
“A lot of people are now destocking or hand-feeding, which is adding even more pressure to people who are already under a lot of stress.”
Camilla said many people, particularly at the time of the fire, were lost, and didn’t know where to start rebuilding their lives.
The rural support workers or rural financial counsellors are busy in the first two weeks.
“It’s becoming easier for people to chat to us after this so they’re starting to slowly open up a bit more,” she said.
But when you are rebuilding after a natural disaster it’s difficult but, it’s wise to step back and plan well, she said.
“I think when people are in a high stress state, their thinking isn’t as clear as usual.
“We had psychologist David Younger visit the community and he spoke a lot about high stress over a long period impacting physical and mental health, and how it affects our reactions and judgment.
“For example, you might not have liked where a shed or fence line was placed before, but some people might rush to get it put back up, but this is an opportunity to have a think about the best place to rebuild, which is not the kind of thing we can do in a highly-stressed state.
“I think sometimes the feeling is, ‘we’ve got to be busy, we’ve got to do something’, so they want to jump in and get things done straight away.
Being social is another way to get back on track.
“During a natural disaster and in the initial recovery, trauma can take over someone’s life, so they can begin to forget about what their life looked like before the incident. Trying to move back towards things that made them happy before is important, whether it was social tennis or being part of a community group like CWA, reconnecting can be a big help,” she said.
“A lot of the recovery is about getting back into a routine, and just asking yourself, ‘have I disengaged from community groups, social events or volunteering, or even barbecues with the neighbours?’.
“Those social catch-ups can fall away because it can be so busy and overwhelming, but everyone is feeling the same way so socialising is really important.
“Sometimes it’s not until six months or so afterwards that people realise they’re not coping or they haven’t seen a neighbour in ages, so it’s important they touch base with people again.”
“From a mental health perspective, it’s a key time and we’ll still be working with fire-affected communities for some time,” Camilla said.