Researchers from Edith Cowan University have recently released findings from a study examining the effects of the devastating 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires on the mental health and wellbeing of Australia’s emergency responders.
Of the nearly 65,000 responders who helped during the Black Summer bushfires, 78% were volunteers. The data from the study revealed that 5.5% of volunteer firefighter participants had made suicide plans in the year following the fires. Nearly half reported living with post-traumatic stress symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety, with 11% having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite the impact on wellbeing among the participants, less than half (48%) had sought mental health support in the year following the fires. Volunteer firefighters commonly reported that that their organisation had not provided them with the ‘right type’ of support, with many simply linking them to an Employee Assistance Program. The preference was for peer support, and being able to talk to someone who had been through a similar experience.
These findings support other Australian research from The University of Western Australia’s After the Fires study, which is investigating how to deliver effective support for mental health and wellbeing to the Australian bushfire’s first responders. Wave 1 has been completed, with Wave 2 currently in progress, in order to monitor longer term impacts and determine how best to protect and promote wellbeing in to the future.
Emergency responders face issues such as fear for their safety, minimal time between deployments to fight fires, and the cumulative effect of being exposed to multiple traumas over a long period of time. These research studies demonstrate the heightened risk of suicidal distress for emergency responders following a traumatic event such as the Black Summer bushfires, due to the ongoing negative effects on wellbeing. This emphasises the need to increase efforts to support emergency responders following natural disasters, and may also be relevant following the recent floods in New South Wales and Queensland.