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Advice for ADF personnel assisting in bushfire recovery – looking after your mental health and wellbeing

News, Veterans, Our experts

The start of 2020 brought some of Australia’s worst bushfires to New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia with Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel deployed to bushfire affected communities as part of relief efforts.

About 5,100 ADF personnel, including about 1,200 reservists, have been supporting Operation Bushfire Assist, according to the Department of Defence.

As of mid-February, recovery efforts supported by the ADF are focussed on assisting state authorities to re-open roads, restoring essential services, remediating fences for livestock control, and delivering food, water and fodder to communities. Defence is also providing assistance to emergency services personnel in Western Australia in support of firefighting efforts.

The extent of damage of the bushfires is significant. An estimated 18.6 million hectares have burned, more than 5,900 buildings have been destroyed and, tragically, at least 34 people have perished. An estimated one billion animals have also died.

In assisting in the clean-up operation, Nicole Sadler, Head of Policy and Practice at Phoenix Australia, says it is important for ADF personnel who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the bushfires to monitor their ongoing mental health.

“People may have been exposed to situations they are not usually involved in, like burying livestock, clearing roads and coming into contact with people who are highly distressed and traumatised,” says Nicole.

“Some may have also had a personal connection, with their own homes or lives threatened by the fires, or having family members directly affected.

“The activation of reservists was highly unusual and speaks to the magnitude of the national disaster. Because it is highly unusual and was probably unexpected by many personnel, some may not have been fully prepared for what they were exposed to.

“We know that Defence has put in a lot of measures to support the mental health and wellbeing of ADF personnel during Operation Bushfire Assist, and will be continuing to follow up personnel over the coming months to check in and see how they are doing. But it’s important that individuals also monitor their own mental health – and their families and friends can also monitor how they are going.”

The pride and sense of fulfilment that comes with helping Australian communities in need is a positive side of the recovery effort. Nicole emphasises that many of the ADF personnel involved in bushfire relief will return to their everyday lives without any ongoing effects.

But she says it is important for those who may be struggling with experiences arising from the bushfires to seek support from their family, trusted social networks, GP or Medical Officer or a health practitioner who supports their mental health.

“In coming weeks, if people find it difficult to settle, to sleep or concentrate, or if they are just feeling agitated, and this is impacting on their ability to function at work or at home, then there are places to go to get support. See your GP or MO if you are concerned,” says Nicole.

“With big disasters like this, we also know that if people have been previously exposed to trauma, seeing other people exposed to something traumatic and dramatic, like the bushfires, even indirectly through the media, can be very difficult and upsetting. Those people may benefit from some professional assistance and we’d encourage them to check in with their GP or MO or other mental health professional about their psychological health.”

Nicole says health professionals working with ADF personnel, reservists or veterans should also check in with clients to see if they have been impacted in some way by the bushfires.

“Ask if they have been exposed to anything, or are particularly upset or impacted by anything related to the bushfires. This will allow you to provide targeted advice on how clients can look after themselves or people whom they are concerned about,” says Nicole.

Self-care suggestions

  • Connect with people socially and find someone you can talk to
  • Accept practical assistance
  • Do things you enjoy doing
  • Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to make you feel better
  • Don’t over-commit yourself
  • Eat healthy food, get some exercise and rest
  • Monitor and minimise the amount of bushfire-relates images and stories you see in the media.

For more helpful resources related to bushfire recovery, visit the Phoenix Australia Bushfire Resources web page.

The Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs also have a range of resources and support services for Defence personnel and their families impacted by the bushfires: