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Post-disaster mental health support

11 Aug 2022

Cath Walker, Senior Psychologist with the CRANAplus Bush Support Line, has this June been awarded a National Emergency Medal for her work in Mallacoota, Victoria following the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019/2020.

It’s won­der­ful that the impor­tance of men­tal health sup­port has been recog­nised with this award,” says Cath. 

I would say the men­tal and phys­i­cal health con­nec­tion has come a long way since I start­ed nurs­ing in the 80s.

As psy­chol­o­gists, we can’t stop the fires, but, work­ing with first respon­ders and locals in times of dis­as­ter, we can help pre­vent peo­ple from being unwell with trau­ma-relat­ed effects over the fol­low­ing months and years.”

Cath has an exten­sive back­ground in dis­as­ter, trau­ma and com­mu­ni­ty recov­ery work, Men­tal Health First Aid and treat­ing PTSD. She was on hol­i­day from her job with the Queens­land Roy­al Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice (RFDS) when the Black Sum­mer bush­fires began to impact East Gipp­s­land in Victoria.

Cath Walk­er, Senior Psy­chol­o­gist, CRANAplus Bush Sup­port Line — Pho­to cred­it Bec Symons, ABC.

I saw what was com­ing and thought about the dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences I’d had in cyclones, floods and fires,” says Cath, who hails from Gippsland.

I didn’t know if it was out of place or not, but I thought I’ll just ring and ask if I could help out, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the aftermath.”

With her expe­ri­ence work­ing in dis­as­ter zones includ­ing the Queens­land floods just nine months ear­li­er, Cath’s offer of help was snapped up and she was soon on a Roy­al Aus­tralian Air Force Her­cules, land­ing in Mal­la­coo­ta amongst dev­as­ta­tion in the lit­tle township.

My work from the start in Mal­la­coo­ta was not in a clin­ic, but in the com­mu­ni­ty, per­haps at the pub hav­ing din­ner, hav­ing a cof­fee, being approach­able and acces­si­ble, just as we do as mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty – I offered sup­port,” she says.

Cath Walk­er­s’s Nation­al Emer­gency Medal award­ed for her work in Mal­la­coo­ta, Vic­to­ria fol­low­ing the dev­as­tat­ing Black Sum­mer bush­fires of 2019/2020. Pho­to cred­it Bec Symons, ABC.

The first psy­cho­log­i­cal assis­tance starts with infor­mal chat­ting and even more impor­tant­ly, with lis­ten­ing. While it’s impor­tant to show empa­thy, it’s impor­tant to look for those signs from peo­ple who might be in trou­ble and who could use extra pro­fes­sion­al help.

In those first weeks, peo­ple would often say I think I’m going crazy,’ and I’d quick­ly assure them that they weren’t going crazy – I’d tell them, This is not nor­mal, it’s not your nor­mal’,” she says.

I am expe­ri­enced in iden­ti­fy­ing the moments when it’s impor­tant to say, How are you going?’ and to recog­nise the warn­ing signs. If they’re not acknowl­edged at the time, they may sur­face months or years later.”

While sup­port­ing the com­mu­ni­ty, it was tempt­ing to keep on keep­ing on, but she made an effort to get breaks from work: Even health work­ers need some rest and recovery.”

Dur­ing the weeks while in Mal­la­coo­ta, Cath helped estab­lish the Bush­fire Recov­ery pro­gram which is still deliv­ered by RFDS Vic­to­ria and Rela­tion­ships Aus­tralia Vic­to­ria. The pro­gram has proven to be invalu­able for res­i­dents across the Gipp­s­land region as they work through the last­ing impacts of the 2019/2020 bushfires.

I saw the signs of PTSD in the com­mu­ni­ty,” Cath says. I always knew recov­ery, for many of the local com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and emer­gency ser­vices work­ers deal­ing with those trau­mat­ic con­di­tions, would be a long road.

Cath Walk­er pic­tured with gov­ern­ment and RFDS rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Pho­to cred­it Bec Symons, ABC.

So many peo­ple are still there, deal­ing with the out­comes. Oth­ers have moved on, but the effects of this kind of work affects peo­ple dif­fer­ent­ly, and I urge any­one to be aware of their feel­ings and reactions.”

Cath, who accept­ed the medal giv­en in recog­ni­tion of her ded­i­ca­tion and will­ing­ness to offer help, prefers to see this award as a won­der­ful recog­ni­tion of men­tal health as an impor­tant aspect of the post-dis­as­ter response, one deserved by many thousands.

Over the last cou­ple of years, Cath has been writ­ing and deliv­er­ing online and face-to-face work­shops for CRANAplus Men­tal Health and Well­be­ing, on issues such as How to assist your­self and oth­ers with the effects of stress and trau­ma’. She has now also tak­en on a part-time role with the team of psy­chol­o­gists work­ing for the Bush Sup­port Line (1800 805 391).

This is such a good ser­vice and I urge any­one who has felt the effects of a trau­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion they have found them­selves in, to put their hand up and say, I’d like to talk to some­one’, or I think I need a bit of help,” she says.