Bushfire Recovery Program improves mental health for country children

  • Young children and teacher at a table

When loss, change or disasters happen, children can be impacted in different ways, and it is important they are provided with the right support.

Royal Far West’s (RFW) Bushfire Recovery Program was developed to support the wellbeing and resilience of children impacted by bushfires and to reduce the likelihood of long-term adverse effects.

The program was implemented in rural and remote regions of NSW, where 2 in 5 children were personally impacted by the 2019/2020 bushfires. To-date it has already delivered clinical services to more than 3,000 children and their caregivers, in 50 schools and preschools in NSW.

About the RFW Bushfire Recovery Program:

RFW’s Bushfire Recovery Program was designed so that it could be easily modified to assist with trauma resulting from other disasters or large-scale emergencies such as flood, cyclones, storms, and drought.

It is a multifaceted, multidisciplinary, community-based intervention model, delivered through primary schools and preschools, providing psychosocial support to children (0-12yrs) and those key adults around the child including parents/carers, and educators.

A multidisciplinary allied health team, made up of social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists, delivers the program through community visits with ongoing support and teletherapy services.

The impact to-date:

An independent evaluation of RFW’s Bushfire Recovery Program conducted by Charles Sturt University has shown the RFW service has successfully delivered significant improvement in mental health and emotional resilience for children affected by bushfires, meaning children had improved social well-being, improved peer relationships, developed important strategies to cope and learned new ways to feel better.  

Jacqueline Emery, Chief Executive of RFW said “the Bushfire Recovery Program has been a game changer for many small schools and communities affected by the bushfires and key learnings must be applied to support children, families and communities after devastating climate related disasters”. 

“We need to recognise the impact climate change is having on our children’s life trajectories. Not only does the evidence clearly show our approach delivers improved mental health and well-being for country kids, but it also crucially has better outcomes for educators and more support for parents, who are now better prepared to face any future disasters”.   

Ms Emery goes on to say “we know the detrimental impacts of a disaster on a child’s educational, employment and psychosocial outcomes are well documented. Children from more vulnerable backgrounds are particularly at risk.  Young children and those living in rural and remote areas are disproportionally impacted given the other disadvantages they face, such as limited access to health and care and the higher likelihood of having developmental vulnerabilities.  

The main findings of the evaluation include: 

  1. A statistically significant improvement in mental health as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) for children who received psychology teletherapy. Most significant was the improvement in emotional symptoms; and conduct problems. This is particularly significant given child conduct problems are the most reliable precursor of all types of adult mental health problems and are associated with significant lifetime public health costs. 
  2. 96% of school principals and educators said the Program improved the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of children/students impacted by disasters, to a ‘great’ or ‘large’ extent”.  
  3. 73% of parents whose children received teletherapy said there was an improvement in their child’s participation in learning or play and/or function to a very large or large extent, while this increased to 92% when those who recognised a moderate improvement were included. A similar amount said their children’s problems were better overall because of the program.  
  4. Parents also reported that their child had increased emotional regulation strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with adversity as a result of participating in the teletherapy sessions; 71% of parents who completed the survey said their child’s emotional regulation strategies and coping mechanisms had improved by a large or very large amount.  

Children, parents and educators shared:  

“They helped me to get the courage to speak about my emotions. It’s OK to say stuff you’re sad about. It’s helped me and it can help others” Millie, 9 years. 

“ [the program] has made such a big positive impact that we are really grateful for. And I can say that from a teacher’s perspective and speaking to other parents that have benefited from RFW I just can’t advocate for them enough. It has just been so phenomenal for us to access those resources after everything that has happened for so many different people”. (Parent)     

“Many students became calmer and developed a language to talk about feelings. When the school worked with RFW through Teletherapy, we were better placed to support students' mental health” (Principal) 

The Bushfire Recovery Program was jointly funded by the Australian and NSW Governments through the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund. 

Since 2022 the Bushfire Recovery Program has evolved into the Community Recovery Program as our work expanded to include communities impacted by floods and multiple disaster threats in NSW and Queensland, with support from the Department of Health and Aged Care.

Read more about the impact of RFW’s Bushfire Recovery Program.

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