A landmark study has highlighted the urgent need for better mental health resources for first responders, following the catastrophic ‘Black Summer’ bushfires of 2019/20.
The After the Fires study was launched in the aftermath of the devastating bushfire season, which claimed the lives of 33 people and ravaged more than 20 million hectares.
Involving surveys and interviews, the final report found that the mental health and wellbeing of first responders continued to be impacted more than two years on.
More than 4000 respondents across a range of emergency service agencies took part in the study, and the results were troubling.
Rates of probable post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological distress was high among both volunteers (4.2%) and employees (7.3%), and alarmingly, emergency services personnel were also twice as likely as civilians to have considered ending their life.
However, more than half of volunteers and 40% of employees with a high need for mental health support didn’t receive any help within 12 months after the fires.
MESHA Executive Director, Associate Professor Miranda Van Hooff, who worked as a co-collaborator on the project, said the findings underlined the need for ongoing support for first responders.
“This is an important study to understand the long-term impacts of such a natural disaster on the emergency service personnel who serve at the frontline,” she said.
“These results highlight the need for ongoing support for these communities beyond the first six months following an event of this scale.”
The report made three recommendations:
• Scaling up support services
• Creating opportunities for breaks to prevent burn-out
• A multifaceted approach to early intervention and prevention.
Chief investigator David Lawrence said promptly providing more mental health resources for emergency service personnel was “crucial”.
“Mental health disorders are often hidden and may develop slowly which can belie the huge cost they have at a personal, community and national level,” he said.
“After the Fires provides agencies and governments with information to focus the investment for the next phase of mental health reform across the sector to achieve the most positive outcomes.”
The study was led by Curtin University in collaboration with MESHA, Flinders University, University of Western Australia, Beyond Blue, Roy Morgan Research, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and was funded by Medical Research Future Fund, Emerging Priorities and Consumer Driven Research, Bushfire Impact Research Grant.