Floods, fires and droughts generally have a greater impact on people living in rural and remote areas of Australia compared to people living in cities, which is compounded by poorer access to assistance for their physical and mental health problems.
Children’s charity Royal Far West has been supporting the health and wellbeing of rural and remote children and their families for 95 years.
The impact of the drought has undoubtedly had an impact on demand for Royal Far West’s specialist developmental and mental health services, which has nearly doubled in the past two years. In particular, the volume of mental health telecare sessions delivered by Royal Far West has increased by 86 per cent in the last year.
The bushfire catastrophe was the first time Royal Far West has responded to a disaster. Business Director Jacqui Emery said the charity consulted with experts, including those from London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, explaining, “we understand the road to recovery will be a long one”.
Statistics from disasters include Hurricane Katrina, where PTSD rates increased from 15 per cent five to eight months after the disaster to 20 per cent a year later, while impacts from the Black Saturday and related bushfires indicated that three to four years after the bushfires, 26 per cent of people in high-impact communities, 17 per cent in medium-impact communities and 12 per cent in low-impact communities had mental health problems that might require professional support, approximately double the levels of people not affected by disaster.
“Our psychologists and social workers have been visiting devastated regions, talking with the locals about what is needed now, and in the future. Mirroring overseas experience, families and children require short-term help with things like housing and finances, and it’s expected that mental health needs will become more prevalent six to 12 months down the track,” Jacqui said.
Because of its paediatric expertise and deep community relationships in country NSW, Royal Far West was asked by UNICEF Australia to partner in its Bushfire Recovery Program. UNICEF’s $750,000 will enable Royal Far West to mobilise specialist clinicians to support eight affected regions, including up to 58 communities, starting in the NSW South Coast and Northern NSW in April.
“I visited some bushfire areas with our CEO Lindsay Cane AM, including a school in Quaama where 19 of the 55 children had lost their homes,” Jacqui said.
“Through our research we know that children are often the silent victims of traumatic events. They are the ones who watch the stress on their parents and carers, or see their homes and possessions disappear, or must shoulder heavy workloads to help their exhausted parents, with little or no time or freedom to play.”
Royal Far West’s clinicians are increasingly supporting highly vulnerable families, with children who are struggling at school and at home.
This complexity impacts family stability and the world around the child – and means deeper, longer term strategies are needed, which are more resource-intensive, along with greater coordination across multiple agencies, as many local services in rural and remote areas are not equipped with the resources to deal with these issues.
And with the impact of climate change continuing to affect rural areas of Australia, the need for long-term strategies is highlighted. Rural families are on the frontline of climate change impact. Extreme weather events like bushfires, droughts and floods will continue to impact rural and remote communities and people and organisations need to work together to make sure the long-term effects are not intractable.