Boosting resilience in disaster-affected communities

  • Phases of Disaster

Phases of Disaster

The social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change are well documented, but we cannot underestimate the mental health toll of climate-related disasters – both for the Australians experiencing them firsthand, and the wider community.

Education on how to prepare for bushfires has been widespread in Australia, but we haven't had the same community education or resulting awareness when it comes to floods or other events. In the face of climate change and the rising numbers of natural disasters occurring, we need to get smarter about our approach.

In psychology, we talk a lot about the importance of building community resilience. Resiliency fosters a culture of innovation, hope and teamwork in communities, making people stronger and better prepared.

But what does it mean to be mentally resilient? On an individual level, it's about teaching people to monitor their own psychological and physiological responses and showing them how they can reach out to others, and who they can put in their network to assist them. Building the psychological strength to deal with difficult situations is something that can be taught, so that when another disaster occurs, people have more personal resources to draw on and can respond in adaptive ways.

This is where psychologists come in. Psychologists are well-placed to deliver psychological first aid immediately after climate-related disasters, as well as offer support over the longer term via programs aimed at building community resilience.

Putting this kind of education and support into action requires a coordinated response. That’s why, in 2009, APS established the Disaster Response Network (DRN) – a group of volunteer APS psychologists who provide psychological first aid services to first responders and frontline staff during emergencies, followed by support during the recovery phase.

Our DRN volunteers undertake extensive training in emergency management via the APS Disaster Response Training, which is currently funded by the Federal Government. This training includes important information about the phases of disaster (see below), effective communication styles during different times in crisis, and important decision paths to follow during times of high stress.

So far, over 800 APS members have undergone disaster response training and volunteered their time through APS DRN to support first responders to manage the mental aftereffects of a disaster, and we've been able to conduct over 600 wellbeing checks over the past 18 months.

Often it's months after a tragedy when psychological support can have the greatest impact.

Through our advocacy work, APS has also been highlighting the need to further improve rural health outcomes and boost resilience in the face of climate change. We recently identified several opportunities for psychology funding in our pre-budget submission for 2024-25:

  1. Expansion of the APS Disaster Response Network (DRN) and training for psychologists to proactively prepare communities for the impact of climate disasters.
  2. Group-based psychosocial wellbeing workshops and community forums in disaster-impacted areas to facilitate community-led recovery in a culturally safe way.
  3. Self-care and resilience-building resources for frontline workers and the broader community.
  4. Targeted programs to proactively provide culturally safe, co-designed psychosocial support to communities in times of crisis.

By addressing the mental health gap that often exists in conversations about climate change, we are working to lay important foundations for Australians to develop and rebuild their psychological resilience levels.

Resources

  • The APS Find a Psychologist service can help people access psychological services and support.
  • Check out APS’ free Community Resources with information and strategies to respond to the health and wellbeing impacts of climate change.
  • Free APS community climate change empowerment handbook.
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