Dousing the flames: The new normal - People who overcome trauma following a disaster don’t always return to ‘normal’ and that can be a good thing - Opinion
This article was first published on Pursuit.
By Lisa Mamone
Recovering from a traumatic event for some can mean finding a new appreciation of life – for others it is a slow process fraught with negativity.
Professor Lou Harms and Associate Professor Lisa Gibbs from the University of Melbourne, chief investigators on the Beyond Bushfires project, have identified which social determinants help people bounce back after a traumatic event.
They hope the research will help communities and services with strategies to improve recovery after traumatic events.
“We are looking at the long term trajectory and emphasis on the connection between individual and community recovery,” says Associate Professor Gibbs, from the Centre of Health Equity.
Looking at the socio-ecological aspects of trauma, they emphasised the importance of strong social networks in the recovery and post-traumatic growth process. This cannot happen without the support of strong systems and resources.
“Having more close emotional ties is generally related to better mental health and personal wellbeing several years after a disaster. Involvement in local community groups and organisations is also associated with more positive outcomes.”
One of the intersections between social work and climate change is the major socio-economic impact on communities, particularly if disaster events amplify existing social inequalities.
"While there’s always been a risk of bushfire, flood and cyclone, the evidence does seem to be pointing to these increasing in frequency and in intensity."
“We’re exposing more and more people to those risky environments. So it’s very different from urban environments. Housing affordability becomes a key issue in all of that,” says Professor Harms, from the Department of Social Work.
New housing developments are often pushed to the fringes of high-risk fire areas and are an emerging area of concern. In December 2014, a new housing estate in northeast Perth was metres away from a fire that swept through Whiteman Park.
Housing affordability plays a big part in exposing social vulnerabilities. Low-income families and first-home buyers are often forced to buy in these newly developed estates and might not always be aware of the increased risk of bushfire.
People who are less financially secure and already disadvantaged can end up living in an area that is vulnerable to catastrophic natural disasters. In turn, they are also further away from support networks such as community resources, family and essential services and cannot always choose where they seek refuge.
Those who suffered most from Hurricane Katrina were the poorest inhabitants of New Orleans who did not have the resources or the means to leave.
“Those who stayed in New Orleans became even more vulnerable,” says Professor Harms. “And as migrant communities [in Australia] are moving towards more rural centres, you are moving social disadvantage into areas that are more vulnerable to catastrophic natural disasters.”
And without social or infrastructure support following disasters, it is no surprise that mental health can deteriorate.
Safety and stability
The restoration of safety and stability is essential for psychological recovery post-disaster. Vulnerable people cannot always choose where they seek refuge and can be further disadvantaged.
In recent years, the social work profession has focused more on place and environments, recognising how place can make people vulnerable to where they are forced to live economically or socially. Social environment, disaster and climate change awareness have become embedded into social work curriculum and research.
“The Black Saturday affected communities are still recovering. In hard economic terms, it’s an incredible cost, in critical psycho-social terms it’s a major disruption and loss for people,” says Professor Harms.
And life very rarely reverts to normal. People who experience post-traumatic growth following a natural disaster don’t always return to their pre-event state there can be positive as well as the devastating negative outcomes.
"Post-traumatic growth recognises that people commonly report that trauma has also been positively transformative."
Growth in areas such as an individual’s sense of self, their relationships with others, and new appreciation of life, new opportunities and spiritual growth all focus on the strengths people have and can develop.
People see it as a wake-up call or a major turning point in their life. They use the experience as a pivot point and make the changes they otherwise would not have made.
“The experience of growth is different from a return to a pre-trauma baseline experience,” says Professor Harms.
This concept has been widely researched by academics as part of the Post-Traumatic Growth Project led by Professor Harms.
As an expert in environmental disaster recovery, Professor Harms covers socio-ecological aspects of trauma emphasising the importance of strong social networks in the recovery and post-traumatic growth process coupled with support of strong systems and resources.
“Many Black Saturday affected people have emphasised the role of their families, friends and neighbours in helping them get on with life. Community-led groups have initiated diverse creative responses that have restored and sustained people’s well-being,” says Professor Harms.
"These social ties and connection to communities matter a great deal in recovery and growth."
Associate Professor Gibbs says “having more close emotional ties is generally related to better mental health and personal wellbeing several years after a disaster. Involvement in local community groups and organisations is also associated with more positive outcomes.
“Separation from close loved ones, during and immediately after the fires, was a risk factor for sustained mental health problems for people who tend to feel anxious about their relationships.”
Professor Harms’ recent book Understanding Trauma and Resilience explores further the idea of recovery, adaptation, renewal and resilience offering a theoretical base and analysis of the stages and response to trauma.
It is no surprise to see the similarity in terminology for trauma recovery and climate change response. Adaptation and resilience are key buzzwords – for a reason – in climate circles for countries and cities that have to deal with the consequences of atmospheric changes that any inevitable increase in global temperatures will have.
“Climate change is often portrayed as an issue that is not at an individual level of responsibility,” says Professor Harms. “That it’s big picture stuff – it’s big industry and polluters that need to be dealt with. And there is a certain truth in that, but there is also individual agency in responding to climate change and living responsibly.”
Individual responsibility provides people with a sense of individual and collective empowerment.
There is a need then to align the broader social structure and policy to support those responding to climate change and those who will be most exposed to its impacts.
Professor Lou Harms Deputy Head, Department of Social Work, Melbourne School of Health Sciences, University of Melbourne
Associate Professor Lisa Gibbs Director, Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne