Bushfires and mental health survey: UNE researcher Kim Usher looks at effect

How have the bushfires affected our mental health?

Increased alcohol consumption is one of the effects the summer's bushfires had on our region, while residents have been left without access to sufficient mental health services.

While the devastation the fires caused to homes and infrastructure has been well documented, researchers at the University of New England are now examining how the fires impacted the mental health of residents.

"We want to hear the stories of the people who have been impacted," Professor Kim Usher from UNE said.

"That's our chance to get it out there in the public domain, so people who are policy makers notice this."

Almost 200 responses to an online survey has shed some light on how people have tried to cope following the bushfires, while researchers have also visited people in the New England region affected by the summer's fires.

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"What we seeing is it seems people's mental health has been quite affected by these bushfires," Professor Usher said.

"One of the outcomes is people seem to be drinking a lot more alcohol. We suspected that might be the case, which seems to be similar to COVID - people start drinking more."

While they cannot know for sure, Professor Usher said they suspect the rise in family violence could be linked to an increase in alcohol consumption.

"It's really important we know how much these bushfires have impacted our local communities around here, to see if the supports that are available are sufficient. We're suspecting at the moment they're not."

Professor Usher said researchers visited the Wytaliba community, east of Glen Innes, after they were invited and they discovered the community was in drastic need of greater mental health services.

"They have a significant number of people who are telling us they're still quite tramautised by what happened to their community, and yet they've got little access to services to help them.

"They need access to counselling and drug and alcohol (services).

"People in smaller, more isolated communities, don't have the services on hand, and if they can't get out to them, it makes it very difficult."

She said more mobile services might be required, while more generally access to mental health services in regional and remote areas was harder to find.

The Wytaliba bushfire in early November was one of the summer's first, but prior to that there were also bushfires from earlier last year that devastated parts of the region.

"We know there's large areas of devastation because of disasters, and I've studied natural disasters for quite some time, and natural disasters like these impact people's mental health quite signicantly, even if there weren't personally affected.

"They might have just been near the bushfires, or they're neighbours or friends.

"The trauma cased by the fires is quite devastating, but we don't know a lot about it," she said.

The researchers are aiming for at least 400 responses to the survey from people affected by the summer's bushfires.

"We're looking at anywhere in Australia that's been affected, but locally we're very interested in getting people to complete it in Glen Innes, Guyra, Wytaliba, Tingha (and) up to Tenterfield."

This story How have the bushfires affected our mental health? first appeared on The Armidale Express.