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A number of APS members were involved in the immediate disaster response to the Victorian bushfires. The devastating consequences of the bushfires somewhat overshadowed another severe natural disaster involving the floods in northern Queensland during the months of February and March. InPsych interviewed two psychologists involved in emergency response and recovery efforts at these disasters.

Doug Scott MAPS

Manager, Allied Health Professional Group,
Centrelink Area North Central, Victoria

How did you come to be involved with the bushfire emergency and what was your role?

Centrelink psychologists are often called upon in times of crisis, such as the south-east Asian tsunami in 2005. On Sunday 8 February, a team of Centrelink psychologists was called upon to provide immediate psychological first aid and other emotional support for distressed residents at Diamond Creek, Whittlesea, Yea, Alexandra and King Lake, as part of Centrelink's emergency response to the Victorian bushfires. My role was to work as a clinician and manage/support the 26 Centrelink psychologists who were engaged at community relief centres over the eight days following Black Saturday.

What kinds of personal qualities and professional skills were most valuable to you during that time?

As part of psychological first aid, a key quality is to keep a sense of calm - not to over or under react. It is also crucially important to gain an understanding of what people have experienced so that you can provide appropriate support. You need to be level-headed, open to change, able to take guidance and directions from emergency service providers, and work as a united team.

It was important for our role as support providers not to be intrusive. Red Cross played a key role at bushfire community relief centres and guided people our way if they wanted to chat or needed help with practical things such as filling in personal detail forms. Professionally, I really valued recent professional development we had provided at Centrelink by Dr Rob Gordon (grief and trauma) and from Associate Professor Grant Devilly (concerns with debriefing models).

What has the experience meant for you as a person and as a psychologist?

Personally, it meant a great deal to me to support fellow Victorians. As a psychologist, it reminded me that we do have an enormous skill set that can be used across all aspects of the human condition, providing this is done appropriately.

How would you advise APS members who might be considering making themselves available in a voluntary capacity to emergency relief/recovery efforts, or perhaps working in a professional role in situations such as this?

Be flexible and don't expect the comforts of your workplace or private practice. You have to be prepared to ‘muck-in' - we found ourselves making cups of tea, preparing food and unloading trucks of clothing and food, which helped us gain an understanding of the needs of the community. Psychologists also need to be aware of the pre-existing strengths of a community and to respect these.

I would advise interested APS members to apply for case management positions with various organisations including Centrelink, so they have a clear professional framework of what is expected of them and they themselves will be given support, supervision and professional development. Also, keep an eye on the APS website for further advice on the potential roles for psychologists in coming months.

What immediate and/or longer term implications does the bushfire disaster have for Australian communities, for the psychology profession, and for us as APS members? Given that we can expect more frequent extreme weather episodes, how would you like to see your profession and colleagues respond to such events in the future?

It was heartening to see how so many people across the community wanted to do something to help (donations, providing their homes for families, volunteering at the relief centres etc.).

Generally, we are a resilient, supportive lot across Australian communities. However, the estimate is that potentially 20 per cent of people who experienced the bushfires may suffer from short- to long-term trauma responses. I think this is where our profession can provide a greater response in assessment and treatment for both adults and children. However, in saying this we need to be prepared by way of specialist training and have a core number of APS psychologists (not just clinical psychologists) listed as able to provide this specialist service and or advice.

A coordinated approach is the key. Individual psychologists who want to help out need to approach government agencies to gain guidance on how to be involved.

Is there a take-home message for us?

That old ethics maxim comes to mind: do no harm but hopefully do some good. And be prepared!

Leanne Thompson MAPS

Thompson Consultancy, Townsville, Queensland

How did you come to be involved with the flood emergency and what was your role?

I've been associated with emergency services for over a decade, as a staff counsellor, organisational consultant, and supervisor-trainer of peer support officers. My involvement in the Ingham floods caused by Cyclone Ellie was coordinated jointly with Priority One counsellor John Murray, and encompassed supporting ambulance personnel living and/or working in and around Ingham.

As we speak, a month of environmental threats is only now receding for the community, with initial saturating rainfall in early February as Cyclone Ellie emerged, subsequent severe flooding, an initial clean-up, a resurgence of flood waters, and then the Cyclone Hamish threat. Thus, the focus of early intervention was to: spend time with ambulance personnel at the station, sharing their workplace and personal experiences of the floods; offer a supportive and caring environment; and make available written information on self-care/resilience and where/how to access further support as needed. All of this contributes to a culture of support, and strengthens the existing workplace networks that include their Priority One Staff Support program.

What kinds of personal qualities and professional skills were most valuable to you during that time?

The personal qualities I've embraced include humanness, sincerity/genuineness, compassion, and (within emergency services) an appreciation of humour. Similarly, the fundamental professional skills in disaster situations are: connecting with people; providing practical support; listening to and sharing people's natural expression of their journeys/stories; paying attention and responding to silent and overt requests for help; and reaching out to staff and their families throughout the clean-up period and subsequent months or years while they re-establish their lives/homes/community.

What has the experience meant for you as a person and as a psychologist?

I felt privileged to share people's stories of their journeys through the adversities and triumphs they experienced, and was inspired by their resilience, selflessness, community-mindedness and compassion for others. Personally, my thoughts are drawn to gratefulness for the safety of my own family and for the more ‘organic' aspects of life.

The ambulance personnel's stories highlighted their resilience in providing ongoing emergency medical services and support for their community despite their own significant hardships. This mirrored the community's own resilience - groups of people banding together moving from house to house cleaning one by one; bouncing back time and again through a month of ongoing exposure to multiple periods of flooding; offering their homes and supplies to anyone in need; and amid their own disaster, sending thoughts and donations to those exposed to the Victorian bushfires.

How would you advise APS members who might be considering making themselves available in a voluntary capacity to emergency relief/recovery efforts, or perhaps working in a professional role in situations such as this?

Be mindful of the natural processes, responses, supports and resilience that emerge within people and communities in emergency or disaster situations. If you think you can help, make your offer of assistance known to those coordinating services in the area, who can advise if, when and how you might be useful (an onslaught of well-meaning volunteers, perhaps unaware of the community's subtle and fluctuating needs or of the physical dangers at the scene, may unwittingly exacerbate problems). If you do become involved, remember to develop/strengthen your own support and supervision network within and outside the disaster area.

What immediate and/or longer term implications do such disasters have for Australian communities, for the psychology profession, and for us as APS members? Given that we can expect more frequent extreme weather episodes, how would you like to see your profession and colleagues respond to such events in the future?

For communities in Ingham and other flood-affected areas, it is only the initial crisis period that may be concluding. The significant ripple effects on livelihoods (e.g., damaged crops and hardships for associated businesses), health, homes, roads and resources can all be far-reaching. Maintaining and re-energising appropriate supports for these communities over time is essential.

In these later phases of recovery and redevelopment, psychologists may play a role with people experiencing longer-term difficulties, delayed effects of the disaster, or grief, anxiety, and stress from secondary impacts (e.g., relationship disturbances or financial burden).

Let's not forget also that we have a role in identifying, researching, and enhancing resilience potential within communities experiencing disaster and/or vulnerable to future disaster. We can be proactive in building effective support networks and community cohesiveness, developing environments in which experiences and stories may be shared, making available information about normal responses to disaster, offering practical support, and sharing our professional resources.

Is there a take-home message for us?

Psychologists responding to emergency or disaster situations can provide a supportive care environment to nurture the naturally evolving resilience in most community members, listen and respond to requests for assistance from those experiencing distress, offer ongoing support beyond the initial crisis period, and provide more specific psychological interventions as ongoing or delayed distress responses emerge.

Each disaster brings with it subtle or significant differences in impact, thus community-specific responses and types of early interventions required may differ from one to another.

Thanks to Heather Gridley for conducting these interviews.