Victorian bushfire crisis: UWS trauma expert comments on the human impact

Date: 08/02/2009

The University of Western Sydney can offer expert comment from internationally-recognised mental health and disaster expert, Professor Beverley Raphael, about the shock and grief being felt by the communities of Victoria in the face of the state's tragic bushfire emergency.

Professor Raphael, from the UWS School of Medicine, heads a specialist research unit which tackles the mental health issues associated with disasters, terrorism and other adversity.

She is the former Director of the New South Wales Centre for Mental Health, and is a leader in the field, having been involved in the coordination of the mental health response to mass disasters like the Ash Wednesday bushfires, Granville Rail Disaster, the Newcastle earthquake, the Bali bombings, the South East Asian Tsunami and recently provided education and training in China following the Sichuan Earthquake.

Professor Raphael says the thoughts of the nation will be with the affected communities as they come to terms with the loss and destruction, and prepare themselves for the uncertainty and possible further loss as the disaster continues to unfold over the coming hours and days.

"The psychological impact from this bushfire emergency is enormous - it's a time of shock, disbelief and immense grief as people begin to comprehend what's happened and the size and scale of the tragedy. Our thoughts and sympathies go out to all those who have lost loved ones at this very sad time and all those that have been affected in many other ways," says Professor Raphael.

"Bushfires bring devastation on a grand scale - loss of life, loss of homes, loss of personal possessions and loss of whole communities; all the things that are most meaningful in people's lives. In addition, these losses and traumatic experiences have occurred on top of the severe impact of the recent heatwaves as well as drought and other financial stresses.

"We also need to think about the heartbreak of the firefighters, emergency services personnel and volunteers who are fighting so hard to protect lives and property, and providing shelter and support to those affected by the fires. They will be feeling their own sense of grief and distress in the face of such a massive natural disaster.

"For many in the community, this will also stir up feelings from the Ash Wednesday devastation and trigger reminders on a personal level - often bringing back memories, sadness, anger and distress over past traumas and losses."

Professor Raphael says it is at times like these you need acts of 'ordinary kindness' - practical support to help people come to terms with the initial shock and emotional trauma, and provide comfort. Later, the counselling process can begin.

"In the immediate term, it's a time when leaders and communities reach out to each other, both at a local level and nationally as a coordinated response to oversee disaster relief and support," she says.

"While we know individuals and communities have great courage and resilience in the face of such crises, the outreach support and concern for others as well as the practical and emotional assistance make a huge difference to those dealing with such challenges."



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