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Monday, June 21, 2021

‘I feel my stomach turning’: Mental health challenges remain for bushfire-affected communities

For Long Beach resident Grace Hornby, last summer’s bushfires are never far from her mind.

Evacuating over the New Year period from her NSW South Coast home with her partner and two young children, she says she felt every emotion possible.

“It was crazy, all of our senses were heightened, helicopters were flying over, sirens were going non-stop, we were constantly on the Fires Near Me app, I tuned into the RFS scanner, social media was just going off its head with people posting left right and centre … it was just crazy.”

Now, Grace, who lives with anxiety and other mental health issues, says she “feels sick” at the thought of her and her family’s experience last summer.

“I actually feel my stomach turning, the heart is racing. I suffer from anxiety and I sort of go through … an uncontrollable, can’t calm down sort of feeling.

“Just the other day we had a really hot, windy day … and it’s actually taking me back to the moments that I had forgotten … taking me back to the days where you couldn’t breathe [for the smoke].”

Grace with her partner, Nick, and two young sons.

She says this is a shared feeling in her community. Nearly one year on, many people are still dealing with the devastation of last summer, while some are looking to the upcoming bushfire season with fear and uncertainty.

CEO of national mental health charity Sane Australia, Jack Heath, says while the mental health impacts of traumatic events can be “huge and long lasting”, they are often overlooked as things like housing and physical health take immediate priority in the aftermath.

“Recovery is a process, a long process that is not linear.

“Among the recommendations recently released from the Bushfire Royal Commission is the need to prioritise mental health support during and after natural disasters.”

Sane has launched Life After Bushfires, a resource for those who have experienced bushfires and need mental health support.

The new initative provides information and tailored support services for anyone who has been impacted by bushfires. It’s also given a platform to bushfire-affected residents, like Grace, with complex mental health issues to share their stories.  

“As people continue to repair and rebuild after the traumatic Black Summer bushfires, the time is right to invest in mental health and wellbeing, particularly for those living with a complex mental health diagnosis such as schizophrenia, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”

While Grace’s family home was spared in the blaze, her parents’ former home – the house she grew up in – was destroyed. She says she and her family have been trying to reconnect and take time out to spend together.

“I’m trying to get back to my creative side. I found that I can express myself and relieve my anxiety through art and music… we just crank the music in the lounge room with the kids and we all just dance and try and have fun.”  

If you or someone you know needs help, call: Lifeline 13 11 14; Sane Australia 1800 18 7263; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

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