A psychologist specialising in emergency recovery has urged bushfire-affected residents to “listen to their bodies”, as they may be at risk of illness.
It comes after chair of the former Traralgon South and District Community Recovery Committee Ange Gordon, reported an increase in physical illness in her community in the lead-up to the five year anniversary of Black Saturday.
Dr Rob Gordon said bushfire-affected communities were at risk of illness a year or more after a period of extended stress.
“There’s a lot of talk about the incidents of illness now in people, serious illnesses like cancer, but also various low-grade conditions,” Dr Gordon said.
“Somehow, the body has the capacity to adjust itself to demand under stress, but it’s making the transition to normal that can pose a challenge.”
Ange Gordon said she had personally observed a recent increase in illness in the Traralgon South and Callignee area, referencing one particular street where almost all of the homes had a resident with medical problems.
Dr Gordon said five years on from bushfire, he expected most people to come out of a state of “confusion and disruption” and start to look to the future again.
However, he said this transition could pose psychological challenges.
“When you start to live in a routine way, it’s only then you start to miss the things you’ve lost. That’s a significant factor in this period,” Dr Gordon said.
“People should welcome those periods of feeling sad and so on, because it helps them let go.”
He said when the stress subsides, some people might start to notice they’re experiencing traumatic reactions, like being fearful during wild weather and having nightmares.
Residents experiencing these symptoms should seek help, Dr Gordon said.
He added they could also experience emotional fatigue and be at risk of depression.
“It’s really important to go along to community events and it’s also important for friends and family outside the disaster to keep listening,” Dr Gordon said.
Ms Gordon some children in the community were only now starting to feel the full emotional effects of the fires.
“The kids might have held back while their parents were recovering,” she said.
Dr Gordon agreed, saying many children would put aside their own needs because they saw their parents struggling.
“It’s been observed that some kids entering school now really aren’t in a good space for learning, because the groundwork wasn’t able to happen in the same way,” he said.
“But development is flexible and you can fix up things that you missed out on.”
Dr Gordon said for bereaved families, five years on marked the point where they had begun to establish a new lifestyle without their lost loved one and some might be feeling guilty about that.
“This transition has to be allowed to happen during this period,” Dr Gordon said.
“It never stops being painful, but it’s a matter of continuing to have a life.”
Dr Gordon is a consultant psychologist to the Victorian Department of Human Services and the Red Cross for emergency recovery.