Supporting children through natural disaster

  • Young girl standing at outback fence with a flock of birds flying around

[Image: Natasha Mills]

In recent years, Australia has faced multiple and compounding natural disasters – from bushfires to floods, droughts and health emergencies. Our nation faces a future marked by increased disasters, with associated economic shocks and social dislocation – all of which have significant impacts on the mental health of children, particularly those in rural and remote communities.

Research has shown that children born in 2020 will endure an average of 30 extreme heatwaves in their lifetime, which is seven times more heatwaves than experienced by someone born in 1960. Today’s babies will also grow up to experience twice as many droughts and wildfires and three times more river floods and crop failures than someone who is 60 years old today.

In response to the 2019–20 bushfires, Royal Far West (RFW) in partnership with UNICEF Australia, developed the Bushfire Recovery Program (BRP), designed to support children aged up to 12 years and adults around the child (parents, carers and teachers) to improve resilience and wellbeing, and decrease the likelihood of long-term adverse effects.

In the development of this program, RFW found:

  • In disasters or emergencies, the immediate impact for children is a different profile of concerns than those around them.
  • Children are particularly susceptible to mental health issues following disasters or emergencies, resulting in poorer educational outcomes and loss of a sense of stability and safety.
  • Some of the impacts were not immediately obvious but were showing six to 12 months after the fires. Often the impact was ‘hidden’ from the adults closest to the child, with few external signs.
  • Children were experiencing a range of difficulties, including disturbed sleep, nightmares, intrusive memories, low mood, anxiety, loss of interest in activities, poor concentration, stomach pains, headaches, increased irritability, friendship difficulties, struggling with schoolwork and increased family conflict.

Without the right support, these impacts can change the trajectory of their lives, reducing education, employment and psychosocial outcomes both immediately and long after the disaster event has passed.

The BRP drove positive outcomes for children and families, with children indicating that the program helped them to feel safe, that things were getting better and that they had learnt strategies they could use to help them feel better. As one child who participated in the program said: ‘At first I really didn’t like telling people about my problems and feelings, but now I feel better when I do.’

As a result of the program, parents, carers and professionals felt their knowledge and confidence to identify their children’s needs and support their children following trauma was enhanced. They also developed their understanding of the impact of their own wellbeing on their ability to support children effectively.

An independent evaluation was conducted by Charles Sturt University after the first 12 months of the BRP, to determine whether it had a demonstrable impact and what outcomes were achieved. The evaluation found it was an effective intervention program, suitable for use in responding to natural disasters and also for preventive measures, to help build resilience and wellbeing in children.

The program has demonstrated the importance of ensuring an evidenced-based, community-led response is available to support children after natural disasters. It also highlights the importance of building resilience and preparing children before disasters hit.

Shockingly, children’s unique needs are not addressed in any local, state or federal government disaster framework. RFW continues to advocate for greater representation of children’s voices, priorities and experiences in disaster frameworks, the establishment of a directory of agencies and expert providers to ensure a skilled and community-led rapid response in local communities, long-term investment in proven programs and transparent funding pathways across the sector.

With communities across Australia currently experiencing recurring flooding, this need is pressing. Children in these communities are seeing significant disruptions to education, removal of play areas and housing displacement, and will face unique mental health challenges that require specialised support.

Given the right support, children, their families and by extension their community, can grow and thrive, leading to a greater sense of agency and self-efficacy, resulting in long-term health, wellbeing and life outcomes.

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