Flames fan distress

Q: The bushfires across Australia have significantly impacted on me and my children. Although we are lucky and not directly affected, my children and I feel distressed and helpless due to the loss and devastation. One of our neighbours lost their home in the fires and I want to help. What can I do to get through this and make sense of it all?

A: Natural disasters such as the bushfires still burning across Australia have a wide-reaching impact. Although many of us may not have been in the direct path of bushfires, we see the effect of the devastation around us. It’s difficult to make sense of such enormous loss and navigate through the intense emotions that are very normal during this time: helplessness, sadness, grief, anger, fear and more.

For adults and children, reactions to the traumatic events may include trouble sleeping, nightmares, withdrawal from people, anxiety, problems concentrating and more specifically for children, fussy eating, wanting to stay near parents and perhaps anxiety about sleeping alone.

After a traumatic event, children and adults need to be able to feel safe. It’s important to find out how much your children know, and provide them with accurate but age-appropriate information. Sometimes, children pick up on bits and pieces in the news or elsewhere, and their anxiety can increase if they construct their own version of what is happening. Your children may have questions about what your family would do if fire threatened your home. This might be a time to discuss a fire safety plan based on your children’s concerns. Depending on the age of your children, you may decide to limit media exposure about the bushfires. Repeated exposure can increase their anxiety. For younger and/or anxious children, if they have already watched a fair bit of media coverage, it’s important to reassure them and also be mindful about how much you talk about the bushfires in front of them, particularly about the most concerning aspects.

Despite the significant distress being felt across the country, and internationally for the Australian bushfires, there has also been an overwhelming caring response. Being able to provide help or support in some way assists those who most need it, and allows us as humans, to deal with our own distress. You may consider providing practical help or making a donation of some kind. You can ask your neighbours what they need and let them know you are available for support. However, it’s important to make the right type of donation. Many websites have information about the organisations to which you can donate, for example, in NSW they include some of the following: Australian Red Cross, The Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society, Rural Fire Service NSW, WIRES. There are also many other charities and organisations doing good in the communities directly impacted by the fires. Social media highlights many of them.

On a personal level, it’s important to manage your own stress and recognise your emotions as normal; but there are signs that you shouldn’t ignore. Think about doing the healthy things that make you feel good despite these challenging times. For more information about looking after yourself, visit the Beyond Blue website for further information: www.beyondblue.org.au. If, after some time, you still feel overwhelmed and you would like further support, contact CatholicCare on 4979 1120 to speak to a counsellor. CatholicCare is also offering free counselling to bushfire victims.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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