Bushfires and mental health

How people are affected by bushfires

Communities and individuals affected by bushfire can experience a range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that can be intense, confusing and frightening.  

These are common reactions to an extraordinary situation. Fear, for example, is an important and normal reaction that helps activate our body and mind to make decisions to protect our own life and the lives of loved ones, friends and neighbours. It is also normal for the memory of intense fear to stay with us.

After a bushfire, many people deal with memories and ongoing feelings by drawing on their own strengths, as well as the support of others, and will gradually rebuild their lives and achieve a sense of wellbeing again.

However, it is also common to have negative feelings and thoughts that result from a bushfire or from the tragic losses that may occur. It's important to know the difference between a common reaction to a stressful or traumatic event and signs that indicate you should seek additional support. 

Common reactions

These reactions can be severe and are at their worst in the first week after the event, however, in most cases, they fade over time. If your day-to-day functioning is seriously affected for more than one month after the event, it's important to discuss it with a GP or mental health professional. These reactions include:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling numb and detached
  • inability to focus
  • inability to plan ahead
  • constant tearfulness
  • intrusive memories or bad dreams related to the bushfires
  • sleep disturbances
  • constant questioning – "What if I had done x, y or z, instead?"
  • 'replaying' the event and inventing different outcomes in order to be prepared should it happen again.

It is also important to understand that a friend, loved one or work colleague may see these reactions in you, often when you do not. They may see you are detached, unfocused, anxious, or tearful without provocation. Listen to the opinions of those you trust, which may involve seeking help from a GP or mental health professional. 

Beyond a common reaction

If you experience any of these symptoms at any time, seek help from a GP or mental health professional:

  • a sense that your emotional and/or physical reactions are not normal
  • thoughts of self-harm or of ending your life
  • loss of hope or interest in the future
  • avoiding things that bring back memories of what happened to the point where you're unable to carry out day-to-day tasks 
  • frequently being easily startled e.g. jumping when a door slams, and then taking a long time to calm down
  • feeling overwhelming fear for no obvious reason
  • panic attack symptoms: increased heart rate, breathlessness, shakiness, dizziness and a sudden urge to go to the toilet
  • excessive guilt about things that were or weren't said and done.

Dealing with the emotional impact of a bushfire

  • spend time with people who care
  • give yourself time
  • find out about the impact of trauma and what to expect
  • try to keep a routine going or create new routines where existing ones have been impacted
  • talk about how you feel about what happened when you are ready
  • do things that help you relax
  • set realistic goals that keep you motivated, but don't take on too much (most people in this situation talk of recovery as a journey not a sprint)
  • review and reward progress – notice even the small steps
  • be prepared for times when you feel you are making no progress, everyone experiences this
  • talk about the ups and downs of recovery with friends, family and the health professionals involved in your care
  • have a plan to maintain positive changes and plans to deal with times of stress or reminders of the trauma.

Beyond Blue spoke with Clinical Psychologist David Younger about the difference between physical and emotional preparation, and why the first 12 months after a bushfire is so tough on people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Beyond Blue recognises the unique impact of bushfires on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.

If you, your family or your local community have been impacted by bushfires, you may feel a lot of emotions and react in different ways. It's important to remember to look after your social and emotional wellbeing, and to do things that make you feel strong and well. 

Children and young people

Being involved in or witnessing a disaster can result in a sense of loss of control or feeling overwhelmed, especially for children and young people who are dependent on adults for their safety.

Beyond Blue’s Be You Bushfire Response Program offers schools and early learning services a package of support comprising four primary elements: Contact Liaison Officers (CLOs), trauma support and guidance, recovery planning and community support service mapping. 

The program has also created a Bushfire Response Resource Pack to provide information related to mental health and wellbeing for schools and early learning services affected by bushfires.

Adolescent Psychiatrist Brett McDermott has written a piece for Beyond Blue on How to support your child's mental health during a disaster.

The Emerging Minds’ resource How parents and caregivers can support children immediately after a disaster or community trauma and headspace’s Supporting your child after a natural disaster also offer practical ways parents and carers can support children.

How to talk to children about news events

During a bushfire crisis, it can be hard to escape the media coverage – and it’s pretty much impossible to shield children from it. Children are especially sensitive to upsetting news and learn how to feel about something by watching and modelling adults’ reactions.

Keeping things secret can add to their sense of anxiety, fear and sadness. Your best option is to take an interest in what children or young people are seeing and reading and support them to understand what’s happening.

Impact on businesses and employees

You may operate a business or work in an affected area, manage employees, or your job means you’re providing services for the emergency response to a bushfire. It’s important to protect your own mental health and be aware of those you work with.

Personal stories

Many people have lived experience of a bushfire and while not everyone is comfortable talking about it, some are willing to share their story.

Beyond Blue’s award-winning podcast Not Alone includes an episode on overcoming trauma. Listen to CFA volunteer Cliff discuss his experience during and after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

You can also read about how Rick volunteered on Kangaroo Island in the aftermath of the recent bushfires.

Australian Government response to bushfires

The Australian Government’s mental health package provides mental health support for individuals, families and communities, including emergency services personnel, impacted by the bushfire crisis.

How you can get support  

For immediate free counselling and additional support in bushfire-affected communities, there are several options:

  • Lifeline's 13 HELP (13 43 57) is a dedicated bushfire recovery line available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for any person needing support as a result of bushfire.
  • Free counselling is available at your nearest recovery centre, evacuation centre, Mobile Services Centre or any mental health services offered by Primary Health Networks.
  • Contact Services Australia on 180 22 66 to speak with a social worker or for more information on locating and accessing support in your community.
  • All mental health supports and information on how people in fire-affected communities can access them is available on the government's Department of Human Services website.
  • NewAccess is a free and confidential service that provides support in the form of a coach. The program includes six free sessions tailored to your individual needs. See if NewAccess coaching is available in your area.

Support for General Practitioners

GPs have an important role in supporting those impacted by bushfire disasters, both in the immediate and longer term. Phoenix Australia has developed these resources to support GPs working within bushfire-affected communities.

Online forums

We have published a dedicated ‘Coping with bushfires’ thread in our online forums. The thread provides a safe, understanding place to share how you are feeling about the bushfires and to offer support to those affected.

Other useful links 

You can find additional information on a range of issues below:

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