The cyclone and floods that have devastated parts of Queensland and NSW will leave thousands of people deeply affected. The most profound impact will be on those people who felt their lives, or their loved ones, were at risk, or who witnessed the destruction, death or injuries wrought by the wild weather.
Emergency services personnel, other workers and volunteers may also be affected. They work under enormous pressure and are exposed to devastation on a massive scale. For some people. the media coverage may also reactivate painful memories of a similar event from their past.
The impact of natural disasters
The types of reactions that a person might experience after a natural disaster can include confusion and disorientation; strong feelings of fear, sadness, guilt and anger; difficulty sleeping or concentrating; and being troubled by distressing thoughts and images.
For most people, these reactions will gradually decrease over time, and having the support of family and friends is particularly important in assisting recovery. For some people though, these problems can last longer and may start to interfere with their ability to return to their normal routine. The risk of developing ongoing difficulties will be greater if someone has been seriously injured or witnessed terrifying scenes, or has developed mental health problems as a result of past traumatic events. These people may benefit from a health professional’s assistance.
What helps immediately following a natural disaster?
To assist people to begin the process of recovery it is important to help them regain a sense of safety and control. Access to a safe and secure environment, access to information about what has happened to family and friends, access to relevant services, and finding out about the impact of trauma, are all important. And spending time with family and friends is critical to the recovery process.
Other helpful strategies include getting back to daily routines, such as having regular meals, rest and sleep, returning to work or study, and spending time doing enjoyable activities.
People affected by the cyclone and floods should also balance the amount of media coverage they watch, listen to, or read. While getting information is important, watching or listening to news too frequently can reinforce distress.
People who experience a devastating natural disaster need time to manage their distress and deal with what they have been through. If someone you know continues to experience severe distress or is finding it hard to cope after a couple of weeks, encourage them to talk to a health professional; the local GP or community health centre are good places to start.
Helping children and young people
Just as adults are prone to experiencing strong feelings after a natural disaster, children too may feel fear, sadness, or anger. These feelings will usually become less intense after a few weeks, and the support of family and friends is very important during this time.
Children and young people may exhibit ‘naughty’ behaviour as part of their response or become withdrawn and quiet. Instead of becoming angry or frustrated and blaming the child for their behaviour, try these approaches instead:
- Children will take their cue from adults about how to react to the disaster – be mindful of your own reactions and manage them as best you can.
- Reassure the child that he or she is safe and cared for.
- When they’re ready, talk with the child about the cyclone or floods and listen to their concerns; children can feel frightened about things they don’t fully understand.
- Answer any questions that they have as truthfully as possible.
- Minimise their access to news coverage and social media about the disaster.
- Give the child special attention, especially at bedtime.
- Encourage expression of emotions – they are part of the healing process.
- Enjoy activities together as a family.
- Encourage the child to participate in group activities at school or in the community that give them a chance to talk about and process what has happened.
If your child is still having problems after a month, visit your GP.
For more information about self-help strategies and general information about trauma, please visit the Recovery section of our website.