Report reveals lingering mental health burden on firefighters

Monday, 30 October, 2023

Report reveals lingering mental health burden on firefighters

A report released by Curtin University has highlighted the impact of the Black Summer Bushfires on the mental health of first responders. The Black Summer Bushfires of 2019–2020 in Australia’s south-east claimed 33 lives, destroyed more than 3000 homes and devastated wildlife and land across 20 million hectares. As a result, the mental health and wellbeing of first responders from fire and rescue, rural fire and state emergency service (SES) agencies continue to be affected; 78% of these responders were volunteers, most of whom were over the age of 45.

‘After the Fires’ is a national survey of the wellbeing and resilience of Australia’s emergency services personnel conducted in two waves, studying the responders one year and two years after the fires. More than 4000 personnel, including 1000 volunteers, from fire and rescue, rural fire and SES agencies across Australia participated in the After the Fires Wave 1 survey. After the Fires Wave 2 was conducted 12 months after Wave 1, and two years after the Black Summer Bushfires. The report encompasses both Waves, and found that reducing the stigma associated with accessing mental health services, creating opportunities for time out and scaling up support services are key.

Professor David Lawrence, the author of the report, said its findings are important given that volunteers are likely to continue to play a significant role in responding to major bushfires in the future. The study revealed that 31% of volunteers and 25% of employees felt their lives were at risk during the fires, leading to higher rates of probable serious mental illness and suicidality.

“The largely volunteer workforce is the most valuable resource Australia has for disaster response. Our report shows the major challenge for our future bushfire preparedness is sustaining a volunteer cohort to respond to large-scale events without the risk of burnout or mental ill-health,” Lawrence said.

According to Lawrence, rates of probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological distress have remained high among volunteers (4.2%) and employees (7.3%). Unfortunately, many individuals in need of mental health support did not receive adequate help, often due to stigma or lack of awareness.

Two years after the bushfires, emergency services personnel were reportedly twice as likely as members of the general population to have seriously considered ending their own life, at 5.6% of volunteers and 4% of employees. Only one in five of these personnel with high need for mental health support felt they received as much help as they needed and 16% of those who received professional help felt satisfied with the service provided. “Cumulative exposure to traumatic events was identified as a significant risk factor for mental health problems in the emergency services sector, while the main protective factor for wellbeing was high levels of social support,” Lawrence said.

The After the Fires report made three key recommendations, including a multifaceted approach to early intervention and prevention, with training provided on early warning signs, peer support, regular check-ins, access to professionals with an understanding of the firefighter culture, educational workshops and family involvement. The report also recommended developing initiatives to reduce the stigma associated with accessing mental health support and encouraging openness to discussing emotional concerns among emergency services personnel.

Other recommendations include creating opportunities for time out by implementing strategies to ensure firefighters have access to scheduled breaks and support systems to help prevent burnout. The report also encouraged expanding mental health support services, especially for volunteer firefighters, to ensure capacity meets the needs of personnel following major disasters.

“Mental health disorders are often hidden and may develop slowly, which can belie the huge cost they have at a personal, community and national level. It is crucial that planning and provision of mental health resources proceeds quickly. After the Fires provides agencies and governments with information to focus the investment for the next phase of mental health reform across the sector to achieve the most positive outcomes,” Lawrence said.

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