Recent bush fires in the Adelaide Hills have resulted in many calls to mental health practitioners, as the community reaches out to find help for the trauma experienced as a result. As though the trauma of the new fires is not enough, for many victims of the 2003 fires in Victoria, the trauma is re-ignited. The community is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Herald Sun reported that more than 10% of children affected by bushfires, suffer from PTSD, particularly those who feared that they would die during the event.  Monash University hosted a seminar on helping these children, and found that some of the immediate help provided to the children, actually did more harm than good.

According to Prof Brett McDermott, director of Mater Hospital Child and Mental Health Service, the likelihood of someone developing PTSD was in direct relation to the level of risk experienced.

Study Examines 1983 Ash Wednesday Bushfire Victims

A study on the Impact of Childhood Stress on Adult Health re-examined 808 adults who were in primary school during the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia and a control group of 780 people who were not involved. The aim of the study was to investigate the long-term effects of the disaster on the psychological adjustment of these children, as adults.

The study found that:

Many of the individuals still have vivid memories and that some remain distressed by the experience. Researchers also found that people who have experienced traumatic events in childhood, tend to experience more psychological and physical symptoms, despite the fact that their physical injuries have resolved. This phenomenon might suggest that the body has trouble separating reactions that affect physical health or psychological health accordingly. It also shows that just because only feelings of physical dis-ease are experienced, it does not necessarily rule out psychological issues as an underlying cause.

Childhood trauma tends to increase health services utilisation in adulthood. Therefore, early intervention can help to resolve PTSD and prevent unnecessary strain on medical expenses later on in life.

An experience that results in PTSD in one individual, may not be as traumatic to another person. An individual’s perception of the event is determined by how it is handled at the time, and other factors, such as:

  • previous experience of sexual or physical assault;
  • repetitive trauma;
  • whether they have suffered from PTSD in the past.

Development of PTSD in the Wake of a Bushfire 

PTSD follows all types of traumatic events, from bush fires to motor vehicle accidents, sexual assaults and natural disasters, to violent attacks or prolonged stress. It could happen to direct victims, but it may also be result of witnessing such an event.

Children between the ages of 7-12 have been found to be more at risk to develop PTSD, with girls being more likely to display the symptoms than boys. While parents tend to want to protect their children by repeatedly telling them to be careful, this could actually create a greater sense of danger. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • personality changes;
  • detachment;
  • flash-backs;
  • fear;
  • agitation;
  • nightmares;
  • reliving the event through recurring, unwanted memories;
  • being wound up or overly alert;
  • avoiding any reminders of the event;
  • feeling emotionally numb;

and more.

One of the reasons why many people shy away from therapy for PTSD in the wake of a bushfire, is that they don’t want to talk about it or re-live it through talk therapy. Beyondblue encourages victims to seek help for their PTSD symptoms, as there are different approaches that can help ease the symptoms and reinforce a healthy mental balance, especially for our children who are most vulnerable right now.

Photo credit: Joshua Earle