Braving post bushfire “eco-anxiety”

Black Saturday survivor Terry Ross says keeping busy in the aftermath was paramount for his battles with mental health. Photo supplied by Terry Ross.
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Houses have been rebuilt but the mental health impacts of the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires are still occurring in Victorian communities. Costa Haritos reports.

Terry Ross was the only person in his street who chose to stay and defend his property when Australia’s most devastating natural disaster swept through the small town of Marysville nearly 11 years ago.

Mr Ross’ double garage was destroyed, as well as eight properties on Marysville Road, the gateway to the town centre.

As the fire raged from the north, the walls were blown off Mr Ross’ garage, which acted as a buffer for his property.

The Black Saturday bushfires took the lives of 173 Victorians on 7 February 2009, including 34 Marysville locals.

Mr Ross’ late father had once stayed to defend his home during the 1939 bushfires, which also went through the town.

“Dad said ‘next time it’ll be bigger and there will be more people lost’ and he was right,” Mr Ross says.

But for many residents like Mr Ross, the devastation caused by the disaster was not felt until long after, when mental health issues took over.

“The biggest trauma was after the fires because it was one of Australia’s biggest disasters, nobody really knew what to do,” Mr Ross says.

Mr Ross managed to save his home on Black Saturday, but he and his wife Grace did lose their business, two rental cottages in the town centre.

“We had to go into debt, and that was draining for us. There was no one to vent your frustrations to,” he says.

Mr Ross says keeping his mind busy was the key to getting through the trauma.

“I wanted to be involved in the clean-up. I went out and bought a tip truck and a bobcat to get involved,” he says.

A year before the fires, Mr Ross lost his only son Stephen, 34, to suicide,

“If you could imagine losing your only son, and then we had no income coming in,” he says.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently declared climate change as a health emergency. “Climate change will cause a higher incidence of mental ill-health,” Dr Tony Bartone, AMA President said.

“These effects are already being observed internationally and in Australia. There is no doubt that climate change is a health emergency,” Dr Bartone says.

The World Health Organisation also described a changing environment as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century”.

But Black Saturday survivor Mr Ross does not see climate change as a current threat.

The Black Saturday bushfires caused 173 fatalities in Victoria, but the mental health impacts of the disaster still live on in those who survived the tragedy. Photo Elizabeth Donoghue.

“I’m not a big fan of this climate change business.

“The weather’s always been weird, I don’t know what they’re on about,” he says.

Dr Fiona Charlson is a mental health researcher at The University of Queensland who says there will be indirect impacts of climate change in the future.

“Unless something changes rapidly, climate change is happening, it’s inevitable.

“We had a cyclone season and we had a bushfire season but now the parameters are meeting,” Dr Charlson says.

The researcher studies ‘eco-anxiety’, which looks at post-disaster mental health symptoms.

“Depression and anxiety are elevated, and there’s also more severe mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, which are much lower in prevalence but are much more severe,” Dr Charlson says.

Torres Strait Islanders and Australia’s other neighbours in the Pacific region are “low resource settings”, with “pretty weak” mental health systems to cope with climate change says Dr Charlson.

“People are actually being displaced from their homes on a much larger scale from what we have seen before, the infrastructure breaks down, and the community is disbanded because people are displaced,” Dr Charlson says.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority produced a plan to address adaptation and resilience to climate change in 2016.

The plan seeks to prepare the island community for rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, demographic and societal changes, and how other low-lying coastal communities will be affected by the changing climate.

Dr Charlson says these factors will put communities at risk.

“All those social structures that keep communities safe and well breakdown when we see these more intense and extreme weather events,” she says.

Mental health was identified as a “significant risk”, to Torres Strait Islanders in the report. Because of the possibility of relocation and the impacts of rising sea levels on culturally significant sites.

Dr Charlson says access to psychiatric services do not necessarily need to be “on the ground immediately”, after a natural disaster.

“What’s needed is mental health first aid, which is more about providing that psychosocial support, checking in on each other, directing people to services, ensuring they’ve got what they need and are safe,” Dr Charlson says.

Barry Thomas is a former camera operator with the BBC, who has travelled across the Asia Pacific region covering natural disasters.

“I was exposed to absolutely everything,” he says.

Mr Thomas saw the struggles of many locals in the community when visiting Marysville after Black Saturday.

He says “the biggest problem that people dealt with was regulation and lack of support.

“The trauma part of it was huge because everyone’s suffering was different.”

At the 10 year anniversary of the bushfires earlier this year, Mr Thomas says some people were more affected than others.

“A lot of people didn’t want to be reminded,” Mr Thomas says.

But like bushfire survivor Terry Ross, Mr Thomas does not believe in climate change.

“The climate is always changing and that’s the issue,” he says.

Mr Thomas now runs three Black Saturday museums in Marysville, where school students and other visitors learn about the devastation caused to the surrounding towns.

He says the museums allow some community members to grieve and reflect in their own time. But some locals are still suffering from the trauma of the disaster.

“It’s hard for me to get residents in Marysville to talk to school children, because they don’t really want to talk about it.

“There’s all trigger points for different people,” Mr Thomas says.

Mr Thomas says the museums connect the different communities in the area.

“Communities really function a lot on their own, they’re not interconnected very much,” he says.

Researchers like Dr Fiona Charlson say mental health is should be part of the climate change discourse.

“We need to understand what it is that communities and individuals need in order to keep those communities resilient.

“There’s all these types of questions that really need a new and fresh approach to research,” Dr Charlson says.

If you require help please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36.