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 common that some people struggle to deal with 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.
These reactions can be severe and are at their worst in the first week after the event, however, in most cases, they fade over a month. 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. It is a sign of respect to friends and family to act on their advice and discuss these issues with 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
- 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.
Australian Government response to bushfire crisis
The Australian Government has announced a mental health package providing for immediate, short term and medium term mental health support for individuals, families and communities, including emergency services personnel, impacted by the ongoing bushfire crisis.
Australian Government mental health response to bushfire trauma
Information for Australians who have been affected by bushfires
Mental health support for Australians affected by the 2019–20 bushfires
The National Bushfire Recovery Agency will oversee a fund to support all recovery efforts across Australia in the next two years. Its website includes fact sheets with further information about recovery efforts and key contacts for emergency assistance.
National Bushfire Recovery Agency
Bushfire Recovery Factsheet
Get immediate, free and confidential support
National help lines and websites
Information for families about childcare services
Disaster toolkits and resources for bushfire-affected communities
For immediate free counselling and additional support in bushfire-affected communities, there are several options:
- 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.
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.
How to deal with traumatic stress
PTSD: signs, symptoms and available treatments
Mental health and personal safety in the face of the bushfire crisis
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.
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 both offer practical ways parents and carers can support children.
How to support children following a natural disaster
How to support children during traumatic events
How to talk to children about news events
These days it’s hard to escape media about the bushfires disaster – 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 kids are seeing and reading and support them to understand what’s happening.
Talking to kids about scary stuff in the news (This video also has some great tips)
A free, evidence-supported storybook to help children understand trauma and recover from natural disasters.
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. It’s important to protect your own mental health and be aware of those you work with.
General guidance for protecting your mental health at work
Having a conversation with a workmate you’re concerned about
If your business has been affected by the bushfire crisis you may be eligible for financial grants, loans or other assistance. A recent announcement from the prime minister provides an outline of support for businesses. More detailed information from the federal government is also available.
Information on support for businesses from selected state governments is included here:
NSW VIC QLD SA WA
Other useful information can be found here:
Information for farmers, rural, regional and urban communities, particularly related to local agricultural support
The Australian Taxation Office is supporting businesses impacted by bushfires
Employee rights including annual leave, sick and carer’s leave, and community service leave
The current bushfire crisis - how you can help
It is important to acknowledge the strength and resilience of our communities and the outpouring of care, concern and support to date.
As widely reported, for those in the community who would like to help and are in a position to do so, monetary donations towards state-based services and charitable organisations have been identified as the most useful way to assist. These include:
Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recover
Salvation Army Disaster Appeal
Vinnie’s Bushfire Appeal
Victorian Bushfire Appeal
Victorian Country Fire Authority
NSW Rural Fire Service
Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland
South Australian Country Fire Service