Survey supports the study 'Bushfires in Australia: Assessing the Impact of the 2019/2020 Bushfires on the Mental Health of Those Affected'

VITAL SURVEY: Professor Kim Usher from the University of New England, Armidale, urges Kangaroo Island residents to support her study which ultimately aims to strengthen the mental health sector during disasters such as bushfire. Photo: Supplied
VITAL SURVEY: Professor Kim Usher from the University of New England, Armidale, urges Kangaroo Island residents to support her study which ultimately aims to strengthen the mental health sector during disasters such as bushfire. Photo: Supplied

Insufficient access to mental health services across Australia to aid people impacted by recent devastating events such as the drought, bushfires and COVID-19 has led a small NSW university team to advocate for greater support.

Professor Kim Usher from the University of New England, Armidale, shares how a survey designed to gain a greater understanding of people's lives impacted by fires is also aimed at those on Kangaroo Island.

The survey supports the study 'Bushfires in Australia: Assessing the Impact of the 2019/2020 Bushfires on the Mental Health of Those Affected'.

"Anecdotally we know that people's mental health have been severely affected by the bushfires," the UNE professor said.

Her work acknowledges the impact and devastation the summer bushfires had on KI residents.

"The trouble is, unless we can get evidence to support this devastation then we are not going to be able to get funding to help people in the future."

The long-time mental health care worker, joined by research assistant Joanne Durkin, says the aim of their work is to create government policy and practice that strengthens the mental health sector.

"Bushfires, droughts, floods and COVID-19 cause an impact on people's lives and in particular one area that has been misunderstood is the impact on their mental health."

"My job as a researcher is to go out there and get the evidence to then go to the government....and say here is a picture of what's out there, what's happening and how bad communities have been affected and what the communities need in response," she said.

Yet the roadblock is the lack of responses to the national survey.

"We have got about two thirds of what we want as a sample but we really would like a lot more," Prof Usher said.

"We are really keen to hear from the people in SA, including Kangaroo Island, because we know it could be different there, because compared with other states and areas - it was an entire island impacted."

To assure KI residents, the university-led survey is run via a secure platform.

"We have our own locked account and the only people who can access that is myself and my research assistant."

"Once the data is collected we cannot tell who put the information there; they are totally in control of what they put in."

Furthermore, the survey results cannot identify a respondent as it only requests the state you live in, female or male, age group and questions requiring 'often' to seldom' type responses.

Bushfires, droughts, floods and COVID-19 cause an impact on people's lives and in particular one area that has been misunderstood is the impact on their mental health.

University of New England professor Kim Usher

In total, the survey can be completed in about 20-minutes and is open to anyone across Australia affected by fires in the past 12 months.

"So it's not that arduous," Prof Usher shared.

"But we really need people to tell us the answers and do something about it."

Recently, the research team's work led them to visit a NSW community greatly impacted by the summer bushfires.

"It was really interesting to sit with those people, listen to their stories and talk with them."

"That's when you really get the feeling of what a grave situation of how it was and stories of back to the day when it happened, the panic experienced right through to the grief experienced since.

"We are really keen to tell the stories in a powerful way that will get attention."

The professor's concerns for impacted communities have been heightened by COVID-19 and what affect this further has on people's mental health, which she says has been "overlooked to some degree".

"I really do feel that and that worries me, and the only way to bring that back to more attention and focus on bushfires is to be able to collect this evidence."

The research team has also assured those communities who respond to the survey they will be kept up-to-date via The Islander as information is collected and reported on.

"We will make sure you get information back. It won't identify you but you can read the overall impact."

However, the team is keen to have an extra couple hundred responses to get a better feel across the country.

"At the moment it is predominantly NSW people who are responding, we want to hear from other people and we know KI people experienced a lot of heartache."

To support the study, click on the survey link below for more information: