Black Saturday ten years on

Dealing with the legacy of trauma 

With the tenth anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires, which claimed the lives of 173 people, falling this month, many members directly impacted, involved on the day, in the aftermath and during the subsequent investigations, may suffer a re-emergence of mental health issues tied to their experience. The Journal sat down with TPAV’s Wellbeing Manager, Tim Peck, to discuss the best ways for those impacted to address this potentially difficult time, and the most effective ways for colleagues, family and friends of those affected to be supportive of what they may be experiencing.

“Some people can see it as a milestone of how far they have come from that incident, for others it really takes them back to that stage of their life.”   Tim Peck, TPAV Wellbeing Services Manager

Why is this a more likely time for someone to suffer a re-emergence of mental health issues?

Traumatic events and anniversaries are often triggers for the re-experiencing of emotions or the conditions you were in at that time. If someone experiences the re-emergence of symptoms of a mental health condition, we would encourage them to engage with their treatment providers or contact The Police Association Wellbeing team or Victoria Police Welfare if they need help or advice around accessing treatment providers. We would encourage members to communicate with each other about how they are going and how they are feeling, to be open and honest about it. It’s also important that colleagues are wary of how their workmates are feeling and remind them that there is support out there if they are struggling.

Is a milestone anniversary like the ten-year marker of Black Saturday likely to be more of a trigger than other less prominent anniversaries?

Anniversaries can be triggers or traumatic reminders of what someone has been through and what they’ve endured. Each person will be affected differently, it’s a very personal thing. Some people can see it as a milestone of how far they have come from that incident, for others it really takes them back to that stage of their life and they need to reach out and seek support around how to manage those difficult emotions and feelings that have resurfaced.

Will additional media coverage on this anniversary increase the likelihood of those impacted re-experiencing trauma?

It is likely that more people will be impacted, because other anniversaries simply won’t have generated the same amount of attention and coverage of this catastrophic incident. It takes people back to that time because it’s such a big anniversary, and a marker of an extremely traumatic period. Given recent weather events, there are a lot of potential triggers around, with the hot days, bushfire warnings and so on, that may bring back memories from that time. It’s important that anyone impacted knows what their treatment options are, so they can pre-plan and understand that if they are experiencing a mental health condition, they can reach out to access services.

How far in advance of, and after a big anniversary like this is considered a peak time for people impacted by Black Saturday to have their symptoms triggered?

The anniversary is just a point in time. The experience the person has around that whole event can be triggered by a range of factors. It could be the hot weather, it could be a day that is similar, it could be some little trigger that awakens those feelings in them again. While it’s a point in time, it’s one that will raise a lot of media and coverage around it. We need 
to be vigilant about our mental health all the time. Mental health doesn’t start and stop at anniversaries, we need aware all of the time.

What is the worst thing people experiencing trauma can do?

We don’t want them to think that they can just get through it by themselves, we want them to know that there is plenty of support available and they shouldn’t go through it alone. It is easier if they reach out and share the problem. Early intervention, accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment is the best treatment plan to follow.

What can TPAV offer those people who feel they need assistance to get through this difficult period?

We would encourage them to re-engage with their previous treatment provider if they’ve been through that process. If they haven’t spoken to anyone yet, and it’s become an issue now, then we would encourage them to reach out to our provider LifeWorks and have a conversation. We can provide alternative treatment options outside of Victoria Police such as Beyondblue, mental health care plans through their GP and contacts for Police Welfare.

How could family members, colleagues and friends recognise some of the common symptoms that someone isn’t coping?

It is different for everyone, but there are some symptoms that are common to many. Lack of sleep, changes in mood, becoming withdrawn, an increase in alcohol or drug use and anger are some of the common signs we see around depression, anxiety and PTSD. So, if a number of those issues emerge simultaneously around this anniversary, it would be an ideal time to have a conversation and check in with the person and make sure they are okay and that they’re aware of the options open to them.

How should someone approach a colleague who was impacted in some way by Black Saturday, to offer their support?

It’s a good indicator of a good relationship or a good workplace if we can openly say: “that incident has come up again, are you traveling okay? Is there anything I can help you with? If you need support I’m here to help out, if you want to be left alone that is fine, but if you need the support, it is available.”

Are treatment options limited to affected police members?

No, treatment options apply to police members, their spouse and their children. Anyone in that group who was affected can contact TPAV Wellbeing Services and Victoria Police Welfare for access to support services.