Professor Brett McDermott is a former Director of Beyond Blue and a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience in helping children and families after disasters. Here he looks at some of the links between mental and physical health and the safety of those in areas still at risk. 

A wise global health leader reminds us there is no health without mental health. 

This applies to coping with disasters such as the crisis we are currently experiencing. Whether you’re a first responder, a local resident or visitor directly impacted by the bushfires, or a concerned member of the community, emotional health considerations are of great importance even well before the long road to recovery.

Because the bushfires still burn and the season is ongoing, people are at various stages of adversity and are therefore having very different experiences depending on where they and their loved ones are in Australia. Here, we look specifically at the relevance of emotional health for people living in areas still at risk. 


Facing danger: how your mind impacts your body and your health

Challenging events such as bushfires bring a range of emotions, feelings and thoughts. Some are useful to us, others less so. For those confronting threat, one of the many challenges we face is to not become overwhelmed. The mind and body need to work for us, not undermine the task of staying safe.

It can help to be aware of the emotions, feelings and thoughts that may arise, as well as their effect on our actions, our health and our ability to best respond to the threat. 

Fear, while unpleasant, is normal and protects us from recklessness. Uncontrolled fear, however, can lead to an inability to function.

Stress related to the bushfires may be felt as tension, anxiety or irritability. Understanding this may allow us to accommodate those feelings more readily and adjust our actions accordingly.

When we’re directly at risk, our minds will prepare our bodies to fight or flee by way of increased alertness, breathing and heart rate, as well as the readying of muscles for action. Knowing that this is normal can help us avoid deep breathing becoming hyperventilation. Equally, by expecting a higher pulse rate, we are able to avoid misidentifying it as a heart attack.

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When our thoughts become preoccupied with danger, our mind will turn to maintaining our safety as well as that of our loved ones and our property. However without context, these frightening thoughts, coupled with unfamiliar or unexpected physical symptoms, may lead to a panic attack, a distressing event in itself, even more so when safety is your priority. Likewise, being too focused on the idea that this present state may be a ‘new normal’ is unhelpful if it distracts you from what you need to do to stay safe.

More generally, understanding the feelings, thoughts and emotions we may experience gives us a greater chance of avoiding sadness and depressed mood, which in turn means avoiding a decrease in motivation at a time when action is most needed.

Maintaining emotional health in times of threat

While the practicalities of survival must be the priority for many people, it's important we consider our healthy working parameters – our own ‘safety range’ as people – when practical and possible. Doing so can assist us in the goal of survival. 

These parameters include getting enough sleep, even if it’s less than normal. Sleep deprivation is a path to fatigue and potentially poor decision-making.

We need to eat properly. We need periods of rest. We need to try and maintain whatever parts of our daily routine that we can, however small. Completing familiar tasks is a simple and effective way to alleviate stress.  

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Regardless of how brief the opportunities and moments might be, we also need to try and find down time. Understandably, some people give up engage in enjoyable activities during and immediately after a disaster. But it is during down time that our stress systems get a chance to reset so as not to be chronically overactivated. Down time also enables us to connect with those around us. Connecting with community, friends and family is hugely comforting and helps us to share and contain our worries. 

Social connection also allows us to see how others are doing and in turn gives others the opportunity to observe and provide feedback as to how they feel we are coping.

Signs of deteriorating mental well-being

At times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to check in on your own wellbeing and that of those around you. 

There are some clear signs of deteriorating mental well-being however these may not always be obvious to us. It is therefore important to respect the opinions of friends and colleagues and consider their views, for they may see signs before you see them yourself.

They may include feelings of sadness and helplessness, persistent anxiety even when the threat has decreased and relentless thinking about the disaster. They may also include loss of appetite, sleep, interest and vitality. At their worst, feelings can turn to life not being worth living. 

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Disaster recovery is not a sprint

For many people, the marathon of recovery is not yet underway because the bushfire season is far from over. Later, we will need to increase our collective awareness of the signs and symptoms of poor emotional health that may persist after this initial phase. 

Unfortunately, there will be individuals who develop mental health conditions over the coming months. Identifying poor mental health early is critical for providing appropriate support, but for those still at risk, absorbing further information about these challenges is for the months ahead. 

For now, the immediate task is the safety and emotional well-being of people throughout Australia in the face of current tragic events.

Related reading: Bushfires and mental health

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