After the fire

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Australia has always been under threat of bushfires. As the poet said we are “a sunburnt country”. This year feels very different though. The extent of the damage in the 2019/2020 bushfires was serious and harmful in a whole variety of devastating ways. Lives have been put at risk and lost, and livelihoods have been taken away.

My goal in this post is to provide some tips for those trying to help effected families’ recovery from the horrible hardship they have endured.

Connect with people on their own terms

People are more resilient than we realise. For all people who get exposed to a traumatic event, only 20-25% of people exposed to them will be traumatised. With that in mind, we need to have a mindset of being willing to connect with people, but be willing to connect on their terms –  not assuming that they are damaged in some way. Most people will take it in their stride. Some people simply won’t be deeply impacted by it, and that is why they won’t need to talk about it. Still others will be impacted but they may not be ready to talk about it. For a small number of people talking about it will be too difficult.

So, if they want to talk about the upcoming NRL season let them do that. Maybe they want to do that because they don’t need to talk about the fires. Maybe they want to do that because they don’t want to speak of terror. Either way, let them lead the conversation. Connection with others requires that they are able to choose what is true of them and talk about it if they want to.

What hurts most is likely not the bushfire, only related to it.

How is it that some are deeply upset by the fires and others aren’t? What is it that determines whether someone becomes traumatised? Well “dosage” of the trauma is an understandable risk factor. The closer you are to a fire, the more life threatening it is, the more likely it is that you will be distressed by it. This isn’t surprising.

What is surprising is that one of the factors most likely to determine whether or not someone becomes traumatised is not directly related to the traumatic event.

In a review of many scientific studies, researchers examined 14 possible risk factors. What they concluded was that it was the factors after the event, such as level of social support and stress, that were some of the strongest risk factors for the development of traumatic stress.

Of all the needs we have social connection is paramount of them all, especially after trauma.

Natural disasters (fires, tsunamis, earthquakes), affect vast numbers of people but they typically have low levels of psychological penetrance. It often isn’t the fire itself that is upsetting. Typically what does impact people in natural disasters are the personal factors involved. These factors will be the determinants of  distress: Whether or not people are supported or taken advantage of after the event, whether people were empathic and showed they cared or whether they were indifferent.

Understanding this helps us to remember that if we really want to help, the best thing we can do is be a friend. Have a cup of tea, share a joke, go to an AFL game with the kids. And talk, talk if they want to, talk if they need to about what has happened.

The people who need to talk will need a deeper and patient understanding from us, and perhaps time with a professional. Emotions can be big and bossy, and the real reason for distress is often unknown to us. It might be the fire, it might be their future, it might be finances or the family pet. We won’t know until we ask and create the space to listen.

For more information about how to help people, consult the Australian Psychological Society webpage.


Jonathan Andrews

Heart in Mind, Brisbane.

February 2020



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