Floods, drought and bushfires have long been a part of life for families living in rural Australia, and the recent increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters has rural health services under more pressure than ever before. With an increasing gap between workforce capacity and service demand, we need to consider how services are delivered and explore sustainable solutions to this challenge.
Prevention and early intervention are vital to improving long-term outcomes for children and communities. When rural professionals and communities involve children as active participants and contributors in disaster planning and recovery, they not only improve wellbeing outcomes for children and their families, but also strengthen communities and reduce pressures on health services in the wake of natural disasters.
Like adults, children are affected by the impacts of natural disasters. Research tells us that talking to children openly and honestly at a developmentally appropriate level, and letting them be a part of preparations, helps them to feel safer and more secure. It will also help them to deal with the impact of a disaster if it does happen.
‘It’s when we feel helpless and hopeless that it really starts to undo our mental wellbeing, whether it’s an adult or a child,’ says Michelle Roberts, Director of the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma Loss and Grief Network at the Australian National University.
‘Being involved in the plan, in the response and the recovery is really helpful for children’s own wellbeing and mental health recovery after the frightening experience.’ (From Emerging Minds podcast ‘What families can do to look after themselves following a flood’.)
A sustainable approach to rural health care means offering help, guidance and information to families and communities so children can be better involved and supported through disaster planning and recovery. Support doesn’t need to be complex, or specialised, and can focus on empowering the child’s voice and strengthening the existing support network surrounding them.
To support rural professionals, Emerging Minds has developed a free Community Trauma Toolkit that offers targeted resources and tools for professionals from varying fields, as well as parents and community leaders.
Health professionals can start by using the following tips and resources for families:
- Plan together and regain a sense of control following a disaster. The Psychological First Aid tip card can be used by families and services in preparation and recovery.
- Keep an open conversation with children and take time to understand what they already know, what they think, what they’re worried about and gently correct misunderstandings.
- Give children the opportunity to make decisions. Help children consider what they would like to take with them in an event, what ways they may like to contribute to preparations and what will happen to any family pets.
- Consider the impacts of an event on the parent–child relationship. Help parents to understand the role they play in their child’s recovery and support them to strengthen this connection during adversity.
- Re-establish routines or create new routines to help children find a sense of safety and stability.
- Be on the lookout for changes in children's behaviour. It’s not uncommon for these changes to appear months after an event.
The impacts of natural disasters can be immense and long-lasting. But when rural professionals proactively build family and community support for the social and emotional wellbeing of children, they strengthen families, empower community recovery and resilience, and create opportunities for attainable and sustainable service delivery now and into the future.