Five years on from the devastating Black Saturday fires that swept through central Victoria in February 2009, research shows that people and communities are largely recovering well.
In the first major data release of the ongoing Beyond Bushfires study, of which I am a lead researcher, we found a majority of people affected by the fires are not experiencing ongoing psychological distress. The results will be presented at the Beyond Bushfires sympoisum at the University of Melbourne today.
However a significant minority of people are still suffering psychological impacts from the fires, with a third of those with marked distress not seeking recent professional help.
The study also finds that social networks matter. Having more close emotional ties is generally related to better mental health and wellbeing outcomes.
The fires — the deadliest in Australia’s history — killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
We began the Beyond Bushfires study in 2010. In the first part we involved over one thousand people affected by the fires in a survey conducted in 2012. Two years later nearly 80% returned to complete the second survey. We also conducted in-depth interviews with 35 community members for greater insight into personal stories.
We deliberately identified communities that represented a range of fires experiences - areas that were really highly affected, to areas that weren’t affected by fires but were at risk. We also looked for diversity in terms of socio-economics, size of community and distance from Melbourne.
We then went to those places and spoke to local organisations to invite them to support the study and act as community-based partners.
Bushfire survivors doing ok
One of the things we have learnt is that within families people can experience what might be a similar event quite differently. We often think of families as a cohesive unit, but in fact their needs can be quite varied. That can impact on decision-making about where they live, their social and service needs, and what items they want to keep from the past or from the fires.
The majority of people 3-4 years after the fires were ok, and weren’t experiencing psychological distress. But there were a significant minority — up to 15% — who weren’t ok, which is more than what you’d see in the average community.
These people were most typically located in the most highly-affected areas, the places that experienced the greatest degree of loss and damage.
Psychological effects included post-traumatic street disorder, depression, anxiety, distress, and heavy-drinking. All of those are signs that someone is not ok and likely to need professional support.
Of those who reported marked distress, there were a third who hadn’t received professional support in the month prior to the survey. That’s an issue for concern.
Among those who sought support there wasn’t a gender difference. We often talk about gender differences in those seeking support, but in this group — quite high levels of distress — we didn’t see gender-based differences in help-seeking.
Women were more likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder, and men were more likely to report heavy-drinking — a form of self-medication.
The risk factors for poorer mental health outcomes include if the person thought they were going to die, anger, and if they experienced major stresses after the fire. That’s quite common, over 50% of the sample reported experiencing one or more major life stressful events since the bushfires, such as financial difficulties or change in relationship.
Tighter communities fared better
Social networks really make a difference in whether people experienced psychological distress.
People who had friends and family living in their community generally had better psychological outcomes than those who didn’t. Being involved in a local organisation was also a protective factor. And if people were involved in more than one organisation, the benefits increased.
The message of this study is to encourage anything that promotes connections within the local community as a way to increase disaster resilience. This could be joining a community group, getting to know your neighbours or connecting with other local families through your children.