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The effects of bushfires on those living with complex mental health issues

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The constant smoke haze and news reports serve as a reminder of the bushfires that still burn across Australia. Exposure to details and graphic images relating to the fires can be extremely distressing and can have a negative affect on our mental health.

The effects of such devastating events can be even more profound for vulnerable people within our communities, such as those living with complex mental health issues. People living with a mental health issue may find their symptoms return or become more intense during this time. For example, someone living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might find that graphic images trigger flashbacks to their own trauma.

When maintaining a state of wellbeing may already be a daily challenge, exposure to upsetting details of what is happening around the country can make this even more difficult.

More self-care than usual may be required in order to cope with everyday life.

If you're feeling impacted by the bushfire crisis, it might help to regain a sense of control, try to connect with others, and find comfort within your day.

A sense of control

A key feature of natural disasters is that they are out of our control. Feeling like control has been taken away can be particularly distressing for people who have experienced trauma in their past.

Regain a sense of control by:

  • Focusing on what is within your control. Go about your daily routines as usual, make simple decisions when you can, make plans and stick to them, keep busy.
  • Donating. If you're in a position to donate your time, money, or other resources to the cause, this can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness.
  • Reducing your exposure to media coverage of the fires. Avoid watching the news or spending too much time on social media. This does not mean you do not care. Taking a break isn’t going to make what’s happening any worse, but may help you stay on top of your mental health. If you still want to keep updated, try setting aside a small amount of time every couple of days to go online or check the news on your terms.
  • Contributing something good to the world. Give someone a compliment, pick up a piece of rubbish, smile at a stranger, buy a friend a coffee, check in with a neighbour. Adding positive energy to the world can help you cope with negative events.
  • Expressing yourself. Write a letter to your local member of parliament voicing your opinion, attend a protest. These can be constructive outlets for any anger you may be feeling.

Connecting with others

The Australian Psychological Society highlights the importance of social connection and taking time for pleasurable activities during periods of ongoing stress. Distress can make us want to isolate ourselves, but feeling connected is important in times of fear and uncertainty.

There are many ways you can feel connected. It can be helpful to engage in social support (with your community, friends, or family), in order to process what's happening. However, this is sometimes more difficult for people with complex mental health issues.

There are also additional options to help you feel connected:

  • Touch base with your support network. If you feel affected by the bushfires, check in more frequently with the people who support you. Make some extra appointments if you have professional support, so you can address your feelings as they come up and before they become overwhelming. Also make sure you stay connected with friends and family who know you and how to best support you.
  • Connect online. If you don’t feel you want to connect face-to-face, you can go online. The SANE Forums is an online mental health peer support platform where you can give and receive support from others in a similar position.
  • Contact a helpline. It can feel like a relief to talk about what’s on your mind. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to talk about - you might just need to connect with another human and have someone listen and sit with you in what you're feeling. You can contact the SANE Help Centre here.

Finding comfort

We all need to remember to look after ourselves. Take some time each day to:

  • Reflect on the positives. When there are shocking reports about the loss of life, homes, wildlife, and nature, it’s easy to feel hopeless and uncertain about the future. When these thoughts are overwhelming, try to redirect your attention to the beautiful kindness, warmth, and generosity that comes out when communities are suffering. Relief organisations have received thousands of dollars in donations, communities have come together to fundraise and donate food and resources, people have been offering up their homes to strangers who have evacuated.
  • Let yourself feel. It’s okay to feel upset. Allow yourself to cry if you need to. Releasing negative emotions instead of bottling them up is beneficial.
  • Find comfort. Surround yourself with things that comfort you. This could be a familiar movie or book, a pet, your favourite food, or a pleasant hobby.
  • Reduce tension in the body. When stressed or worried, a lot of people hold that tension in their body. Practicing deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness can help to relax the body and keep your mind in the present moment.

Other resources:

Life In Mind have compiled a comprehensive list of services and resources that you might find helpful if you're looking for support or information. Click here to take a look.

You can also call Australia Government Bush Fire Disaster Assistance on 1802266.  Call this number if you need mental health support.


Get Support from SANE:

If you (or someone you know) needs support - the SANE Help Centre is open from Monday-Friday, 10am-10pm AEST. Our team of counsellors are available by phone, web chat and email, so you can comfortably communicate in the way that feels best for you.

We can provide you with counselling, support, information and referrals, and we specialise in assisting adults who identify as having a complex mental health issue, complex trauma or high levels of psychological distress.

We also provide support to the family or friends that care about these people.

Click to visit the SANE Help Centre now.

If you'd like to chat with other people who understand what you're going though, the SANE Forums are online 24/7. There's one Forum for lived experience, and another for family, friends or carers. The Forums are anonymous, and moderated by health professionals, to keep the conversation safe and supportive.

Click to visit the SANE Forums now.

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