28 January 2020

Bushfires and mental health: here come the feelings

| Elka Wood
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Dry bush

The bush below Elka Wood’s parents’ place was crackling dry just after Christmas. Photo: Elka Wood.

Since bushfires started burning around my hometown of Bega a few weeks ago I, and everyone in our community and all communities hit by fire this season, have been in and out of normal life and an impending disaster zone.

This summer, there’s been a force that’s bigger than us and bigger than our plans and invitations now come with the proviso ‘weather and fires permitting’.

In and out. A casual dinner party interrupted with the call that there is active fire a few hundred metres from a friend’s parent’s place in Brogo.

Tossing their smoked pork aside, all the men present are suddenly grabbing wool socks and chainsaws and running for vehicles.

In and out. A normal workday punctuated with hearing stories of suffering and loss.

Like the story I overheard in a shop of a man who stayed to defend and his gloves melted on his hands. I didn’t want to hear it but I did and now I can’t forget the image of that burnt man running down the road looking for help that wasn’t there.

I’ve had times of feeling buoyant and strong and really thinking I was immune to the emotional shock of being next to disaster, thinking I could process these fires as a day-by-day practical issue – where is the safest place for us today? Where are my loved ones? Where are the fires? Do I need a face mask to go and buy milk today?

But the physical reality reminds me that I’m not – my chest feels tight, my heart beating a little faster, my neck and shoulders like rocks and it’s harder than ever to remember to draw a deep breath.

Some days are normal. Some days, like today, it all catches up with me and I feel like my eyes are big saucers, constantly glazed with tears.

I can’t speak for those who have been directly affected by the fires – who’ve lost homes, businesses and loved ones.

But I’m one of many, many people who have been next to disaster, always thinking it could be us next. Rather than a direct hit, it’s a constant, underlying anxiety that feels like it’s slowly but surely wearing down our reserves.

Perhaps there’s always a strain on our hearts and minds knowing that there is suffering in the world but I can now verify that proximity is a key factor in how strong this pull is.

Although, thanks to international media, we know that people across the world are suffering from anxiety related to Australian bushfires.

This is, on one hand, touching but it’s also a warning to consume media responsibly.

Having a day off from alerts and media is important during the fires. Trade days with family or friends so only one person is watching the fire of concern and will let others know if they need to take action.

The constancy of being packed and ready to evacuate coupled with the emotional toll of hearing stories of loss and suffering can accumulate quickly.

A friend said to me the other day: “I think it’s time for me to get some professional help, I can’t go on like this for much longer.”

Her words made me realise how important it is that no one tries to soldier through. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t lost your house or seen active fire, you probably need to talk to someone. I know I do.

Luckily, we live in a country where there is excellent access to free mental health services.

Huge concepts like the future not being safe, climate change and people and animals dying and suffering around us are not things we can incorporate into our lives and move on from.

These are things we must mourn.

Retired counsellor David Harris

Retired counsellor David Harris of Bermagui has created a listening post for his community. Photo: Supplied.

The NSW Government has roaming mental health workers offering support in fire-affected areas.

Locally, the lovely David Harris, a retired counsellor, has been offering a free listening post outside the 777 Supermarket near the Beardhawk coffee van in Bermagui.

There are many other examples of kindness and acknowledgment of the emotional toll these fires are taking all around us. Kindness is so important now because it reminds our stress-wracked bodies that we are not in danger this instant and that we can let go.

Just for a minute.

If you’d like to access help, call Service NSW on 13 77 88 to be connected to local support services.

Medicare will cover up to 10 face-to-face or telehealth mental health treatment services for anyone in bushfire areas. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental health condition, GP referral or mental health treatment plan and can access the sessions between 17 January 2020 and 31 December 2021.

If you live in a rural or remote area, you’ll be able to get counselling and support through video telehealth services.

The following are free services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

  • Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au is a crisis support service that provides short-term support at any time for people who are having difficulty coping or staying safe.
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 or www.beyondblue.org.au is available by phone or online via chat or email, to provide support on a range of mental health issues.
  • MensLine Australia: 1300 78 9978 or www.mensline.org.au is a telephone and online counselling service for men.
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 551800 or www.kidshelpline.com.au provides free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25 years.
  • NSW Mental Health Line: 1800 011 511 is a mental health crisis telephone service in NSW.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000) or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

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Georgina Atkinson7:54 am 02 Feb 20

This nationwide crisis is affecting mine and in turn my family’s mental health. Those with existing anxiety issues like myself have found the culmination of events a little hard to cope with. I’ve been to my doctor to discuss my options..my medication has been increased and I’ve been referred to a counsellor but they too are completely overwhelmed with those requiring help I’m in a long line and won’t see anyone professionally for over a month

Kalpa Goldflam7:23 am 01 Feb 20

Bega Valley Climate Action Mobilisation CAM has started a Heart Space, a safe space to have feelings, support each other about Climate Change and of course the fires are our central experience atm
ATM we meet Friday afternoons in Bega..we talk in a circle ie everyone has a turn to talk, the time and venue maybe changing so go to CAM FB page to get more up to date info
Also contact us if you’d like to start one in your area and want some support and ideas for getting it going

Kalpa Goldflam7:17 am 01 Feb 20

Great article thanks Elka and thank you David Harris ❤️

Stephen Mills, Cuttagee4:45 pm 30 Jan 20

Thanks. Very well said and important too. ‘We all need someone we can lean on’. Unfortunately there are just not enough counsellors to go round right now- as Andrew Constance has underlined, there has always been a shortage of mental health support on the south coast. So take your time, take deep breaths and take it easy.

Annie Hughes9:05 am 30 Jan 20

We are having an event at Tahmoor Inn 6/2/ at 7pm with volunteer counsellor/mental health nurse/RFS member and psychologist. It’s advertised on Facebook. Moving on after the fires. What next. Contact us!!

DJ Southwell10:17 am 29 Jan 20

This article brought me to tears and is a valuable resource for all of us affected by fires. As far away as Adelaide and ‘safe” in a smoke free environment, the grief and stress reaches easily across the distances. I hear the concern in my friends’ phone voices and family in Canberra and Sydney are inundated by smoke daily. This year South Australia is rallying for Kangaroo Island and just got lucky with an almost smoke free summer. We have just experienced an international crisis.

Nienke Haantjens8:57 am 29 Jan 20

Wonderful article, thank you Elka!

Belinda Chadwick3:09 pm 29 Jan 20

Agreed. Elka has clearly articulated the difficulties many of us are experiencing and will continue to.

Another mental health/trauma recovery resource being offered by the ANU now is at https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/toolkits/community-trauma-toolkit/.

Right on Elka. We’re going to have to gather ourselves to recover and regenerate. Mental health will be of paramount importance to everyone affected by these catastrophic fires. To this end, I’ll be offering evening workshops in Integrative Meditation at Soul Tribe Studio in Batehaven on the first Wednesday evening of each month from 7pm. These are designed to help people to find calm within, but also we’ll be holding space for participants to share how these fires have made us feel and how we can respond best as individuals and as a community.
Each workshop will feature a sharing circle, some easy exercises to integrate mind and body in the moment, a brief guided mediation and some time for open/silent meditation, where we integrate everything that has come up for us. The evenings will be free or by donation. All welcome. The event is on FB at: https://www.facebook.com/events/625059584955921/
See you there if you are anywhere in or around the Eurobodalla region and feel called to that kind of work

Excellent. This opinion piece really hit the mark for me.Thank you for writing it, and then publishing it to affected individuals and communities who can benefit from sharing your empathy and consider your sound advice about seeking support.

As a psychologist, I know what we are going through is truly a ‘big psychological deal’. I even think that one traumatising outcome may be that we’ll be left permanently with feeling that we can’t begin to know what we (or, worse, our children) might heed to mentally cope with next. I am even wondering if there’ll be a time again when, as parents, teachers and counsellors we’ll ever feel comfortable in facing our future and/or discussing it with our children. This may well become a crucial ‘new normal’ for my profession to work within from now on.

Karen Urquhart10:25 am 28 Jan 20

Elka, thanks for a very honest and realistic commentary on the emotional toll we as individuals and community are experiencing! Wonderfully informative and reassuring in these challenging times and I look forward to more of your correspondence. Thanks and take care
Karen Urquhart’

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