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Coping with disasters

"The best thing you can do to support a loved one or colleague through a disaster such as bushfires, cyclones and floods is to be there for them. If they want to talk, let them talk. If they want to be silent, let them be silent. A GP, psychologist or counsellor can also help."


Dr Christine Bennett
Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia.

How can I support loved ones or colleagues affected by disaster?

Disasters such as bushfires, cyclones and floods can be traumatic for those affected. They can lead to a sense of disbelief and disconnection from everyday life.

People who have been displaced will need simple and accurate information on how their basic needs can be met such as food, shelter and medical assistance.

Some people will need to talk about their experiences, share their emotions and be listened to in a way that encourages them to disclose as little or as much as they wish. Others may not want to talk at all and this is OK. Instead of pressing people to talk, try to instill them with hope and confidence.

Some people may need psychological support in the weeks or months after the event, especially those whose anxiety or distress may be affecting their relationships or daily life.

 

How do I help my children?

Wherever possible, try to keep your family together. Keep your children with you or with other family members.

Young children may not verbalise their feelings and experiences but may let you know how they are feeling through their behaviour, drawings and play.

Babies and children are very intuitive and will detect emotions from those around them. So if they are unsettled or clingy, support them accordingly.

Talk with your children and answer their questions but don't push them to talk.

 

How might people react to disaster situations?

Everyone reacts differently. Reactions can be more or less severe depending on how close that person was to the event and how much loss the person has experienced. Some people react immediately while others' reactions may be delayed. People can feel vulnerable and helpless. Some may appear snappy, angry, anxious or tearful.

You can help by listening if someone wants to talk. Don't play down the event or suggest that they should forget it or pretend it didn't happen. Ask them how you can be most helpful. Remember that it takes time to heal and re-adjust to a new environment or situation. Offer as much support as they need as this will aid their recovery. If the affected person has ongoing difficulty participating in day-to-day activities at home or work, then encourage them to see a GP or a mental health professional.

 

Grief, guilt and other feelings

Grief is our response to loss. Everyone experiences grief differently because our reaction depends on a range of individual factors, such as our personality and age, our relationship with those we've lost, cultural practices, our level of social support and our spiritual beliefs. Grief includes a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

People affected by disasters such as bushfires, cyclones and floods may experience a period of grieving in the days, weeks and months after the tragedy.

There is no single way to grieve. Everyone is different and each person handles their emotions in his or her own way. However, some feelings of grief are commonly experienced. There is no set timescale for these feelings but it can help to know that intense emotions and swift mood changes are normal. Grief can also cause physical reactions including sleeplessness, loss of energy and loss of appetite.

Numbness, shock and confusion are often the first reaction to a loss. This may last for a few hours, days or longer. In some ways, this numbness can help people get through necessary practical arrangements but if this phase goes on for too long it can become a problem.

Grief can also result in despair and loneliness, sleep disturbances and changes in appetite, severe emotional distress, fatigue, preoccupation with memories, loneliness and longing, and stress about any concerns. Other common feelings following a disaster are agitation, anger and guilt. Survivor guilt is common after a disaster and may need to be addressed if feelings are extreme or don't settle with time.

 

Managing emotions

There are a number of things you can do to help deal with the emotional impact of a disaster. These include:

  • spending time with your family and friends
  • getting back into a routine
  • eating well and exercising
  • doing things that you enjoy
  • limiting your exposure to media coverage of the event
  • writing down your worries and expressing your feelings
  • accepting help when it is offered.
 

Getting help

Friends and family can be a great support, but sometimes professional help is also needed.

In some people, the distressing emotions after a disaster persist and can affect your mental health. This can lead to depression or anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or problems with alcohol and drugs. It's always a good idea to encourage a loved one or colleague to seek help if:

  • their problems seem severe
  • their emotional reactions seem to be lasting too long
  • they are having difficulty getting along with family and friends or are having difficulty engaging in day-to-day activities.

People who can help include GPs, counsellors and psychologists. More information on finding a mental health professional.

Does my private health insurance cover psychology services?

Most private health funds cover psychologists' fees, but the level of cover varies - check with your health fund.

For immediate assistance:

If you're in Australia, you can ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 for specialised 24-hour help, support and advice. These groups can help, particularly if you are feeling suicidal.


Your GP can provide a range of options for treating and managing mental health issues. The emergency department at your local hospital will also be able to help you.

Local help lines outside Australia are listed at befrienders.org

 

Further information

For more information and worksheets on recovering from a disaster see the following websites:

beyondblue
www.beyondblue.org.au

Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network
www.earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au

Australian Psychological Society: Disaster resources
www.psychology.org.au/community/topics/disasters/

Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health
www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au

 

Sources

Australian Psychological Society (APS). Disaster Resources-Psychological preparedness and recovery. [online] Melbourne, VIC: APS. c2011 [accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: http://www.psychology.org.au

Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network (ACATLGN). Disaster Resources. [online] Canberra, ACT: Australian National University. 2009 [accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: http://www.earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au

Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (ACPMH). Australian guidelines for the treatment of adults with post traumatic stress disorder. [online] East Melbourne, VIC: ACPMH. 2007 [accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: http://www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au/resources/resource-asdptsd_guidelines.html

Beyondblue. Disasters - where to get help. [online] Hawthorn West, VIC: beyondblue. 2009 [last updated 16 Oct 2009, accessed 20 Jun 2011] Available from: http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=591115.

Last published: 30 October 2011

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.