Bushfire mental health: Black Saturday survivor Chris Bogusis shares PTSD experience

POWER: Chris Bogusis lived through the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and is speaking out about PTSD to help those affected by the current fires. Picture: TARA TREWHELLA
POWER: Chris Bogusis lived through the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and is speaking out about PTSD to help those affected by the current fires. Picture: TARA TREWHELLA

The current bushfire crisis will continue to burn long after the flames have been extinguished, says a survivor of the Black Saturday bushfires.

Wodonga's Chris Bogusis knows first hand that recovering and rebuilding after a fire doesn't happen overnight.

The 30-year-old, known on social media for his gold prospecting, is using his online profile to increase awareness of post traumatic stress disorder, its symptoms and its link to bushfires.

Mr Bogusis, 30, was diagnosed with PTSD after surviving the Black Saturday bushfires in Healesville.

In the 10 years since the 2009 fires, Mr Bogusis has farewelled friends who survived the fires, but died later by suicide.

He even tried to take his own life.

The fire might be well-quenched,Mr Bogusis said, but it still rages in many people's minds.

In light of the new bushfire crisis, Mr Bogusis has taken to his social media channels to share his experience of mental health and bushfires in the hopes others will get care earlier than he did.

"It took seven years for me to be diagnosed and it only came because of an accidental conversation with a friend who was a trauma counsellor," he said.

"In those seven years I lost my marriage, my business, my house - I lost everything because being undiagnosed is an incredibly difficult thing to go through.

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"I didn't know what was wrong with me, I was waking up in cold sweats, I couldn't sleep, I was having constant nightmares and it felt like my heart was about to explode...

"My diagnosis took many years because basically our health system isn't geared to looking for things like PTSD within civilian populations.

"It's so commonly associated with first responders and the military it rarely is looked into when it comes to civilian populations."

Mr Bogusis believes after the immediate fire emergency is over there will be an initial influx of people, often those on the fire front or those trapped in fire zones, experiencing acute and obvious symptoms of PTSD.

He said it was essential these people were identified and their needs addressed immediately.

But, Mr Bogusis said, it was equally important resources were put in place to help identify and support those whose struggle might be less obvious.

"We can rebuild physical communities, but if we don't rebuilt the spirit, nothing will be the same and we're going to see very long-term impacts so we need to start doing something now," he said.

"If the government doesn't set up large scale community trauma counselling services we're going to see high rates of suicide like we did after Black Saturday."

Mr Bogusis said many people become traumatised by things secondary to fire like evacuation, separation or returning home and "seeing the aftermath of their house having been burnt down, finding injured or damaged animals on their property, losing their livelihood".

He said, like him, these people often felt guilty for struggling - feeling that those on the front line deserve help and attention, not them.

"What you'll find in the next few months is people who weren't directly in the fire starting to show symptoms of PTSD. These will be a lot more subtle and will take time to develop, it could be years before they breach the surface of that person's personality," he said.

"These are the people we really have to watch out for in the coming years."

Mr Bogusis said like many 'tough' country blokes, he didn't think mental illness could happen to him, thinking he'd just soldier on unaffected.

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But he now sees that the blokey attitude where emotions aren't acknowledged and processed can end up causing more long-term harm.

"That manly get-the-job-done no-matter-what kind of spirit has a place," he said.

"But it becomes dangerous when you put yourself in a situation where your nervous system is going into flight or fight and you don't deal with the emotions after.

"That same thing that gets blokes to go out and do that hard work, to fight fires, that same grit, courage and determination is needed to admit you need help and to get support.

"It's not a comfortable thing to do, it takes courage."

Mr Bogusis said sharing his experience and advocating for mental health awareness around bushfires was his way of helping.

"It's a private war, it's a very private thing, trauma," he said. "It's important people know that there are other people out there feeling the same, dealing with the same thing and it doesn't make you crazy or weak.

"I'm trying to use the tools at my disposal, the glimpses of insight it took me 10 years to get, to get the message out."

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