By John Mannion
I was lying in a hospital bed post-surgery when I first saw the devastating impacts of the bushfires in my home state of South Australia. I live up in the Adelaide Hills and was always aware of the risk, but watching the fires and destructions in real time was something else.
I knew that our team could be part of the recovery plan, exploring the longer-term impacts and helping develop the community mental health literacy that would be vital in the coming months and years.
We aimed to wait for six months to allow initial rebuilds to occur when the community had started to find space and time to learn new skills and have time to stop & think.
Our aim was to support the development of mental health literacy within each bushfire community, delivering mental health awareness sessions, such as Mental Health First Aid, Barn Yarn Farmer BBQs, Mates Meals and Mental Health Dinner and Women’s’ Wisdom and Wellbeing events. We connected with local sports clubs, community centres, schools and even Kindergartens.
Research highlights that impacts, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can affect us 3-5 years post-incident, therefore we wanted to deliver these programs over a more extended period to support the personal mental health recovery of the community.
Our very first session was held in the Adelaide Hills six months after the fires and the first week after we had reopened as a community post-Covid. I’ll never forget our first conversation, “Thank you for not forgetting us.” “At a time when community connectivity was of the greatest importance to our recovery, we have been socially isolating, and it hurt.” We facilitated a Mental Health First Aid session for 15 students, people who had lost their homes, CFS Fire Fighters, Members of the local church, school, and teachers, all with unique experiences and all who benefited from the group discussions, connections, knowledge and somebody to listen to them. It was an incredible first session, the first of many we have delivered over the past three years.
Future sessions took place all over the state—the thirst for knowledge and connectivity was incredible. So many people had lost so much, but their priorities were learning new skills to help others; it was truly humbling to be part of. Fun fact: Kangaroo Island has a Mental Health First Aider for every 30 people on the island!
Kangaroo Island resident Darren Keenan said, “I always say people behave best when there’s adversity and that’s what the community did. We pulled together and we looked after each other. The tragedy of the fires has given us the opportunity to build the capacity of the community to help their family and friends. If there are a group of mental health first aiders out there, they’ll hopefully be in the right place at the right time.”
What did we learn during this time?
Every story is personal, unique and powerful.
People are awesome!
People are still hurting long after the fires.
The fires do not define a community; people do.
Mental Health Literacy is a beautiful tool to develop, so many people attended the training to learn skills to help others and learn so much about themselves.
Our communities are central to recovery, we need to listen to them, not tell them what the solution is, as it can be different for each area.
Communities love to connect, a sausage sizzle is one of the most powerful mental health tools there is, it connects, brings people together, enjoyable and always leads to the onions and sauce debate.
Reflection and time is needed, we need to continue to learn together, to reflect and to accept, sometimes the best intervention we can do, is to sit and listen, silence can be powerful.
Leading into the next summer season, here are some ideas on what could be helpful when anticipating a stressful time:
- Complete your bushfire preparation plan.
- Anticipate that the situation can / will be stressful: This is where we develop a wider awareness, that certain things may cause an increased sense of stress or uncomfortable. Knowledge of mental health can help us manage our anxiety / stress / triggers.
- Identify your typical physical and emotional responses and any frightening thoughts that might add to your fear. Our environmental changes can impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
- Manage your feelings and thoughts with simple breathing and self-talk. This can be easier said than done, but developing a range of personal strategies may help, including mindfulness, relaxation, physical activity, sleep, and yoga.
Early intervention conversations will empower a community that may feel at threat again in the next few months.
Finally, be kind, to ourselves, to others; we never know what is happening in each of our lives.
John Mannion is the CEO of Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation