Moving forward after the bushfires

An aerial shot of a road running between fields and towards a forest.

Earlier this year, my community was evacuated twice due to the Abby Yard and Omeo bushfires that eventually merged. We all left our homes, not knowing if we would have something to come back to.

Bright was not in the direct line of fire, but would most likely fall victim to ember attacks that would ravage the town. The towns around us were not so lucky. I had friends whose parents were taking 30-minute shifts with their neighbours to fight off the ember attacks on their properties at the base of Mount Hotham.

It was a scary time for the community. The night before the evacuation notice was sent out, the whole town of 2000 people gathered at the local footy grounds for a meeting about how to prepare. We were told to leave the next day.

You can prepare all you want for bushfires, but nothing really prepares you for having to say goodbye to your town. Not knowing if you would have something to go back to is terrifying. You had to accept the fact that some people were choosing to stay and fight, even if they you knew that they might not survive the fire if they did.

Summer has always been a really busy time for my town. It is economically crucial to Bright and the surrounding Alpine Shire. But this summer, too many were out of jobs, too many people were displaced and too many were living out of a suitcase for weeks on end. Bright and the surrounding towns of the Alpine Shire were blanketed in smoke for weeks, even when we were finally allowed to return to our homes.

Barely two weeks after the evacuation, with the fires still burning, we went back to school. Everyone wanted to be back at school, even the kids who didn’t like school. It allowed us to be close to one another and gave us a sense of normalcy. We suddenly realised how lucky we were. We didn’t lose any houses or businesses from the fire and we knew Easter was coming, another busy time for our community. We came back to school exhausted physically and mentally. We didn’t get a summer break. Teachers were tired, students were tired. Everyone was tired.

group picture of members of police and fire emergency services huddled around a standing woman in a fluoro yellow dress in front of a firetruck. Only the very top of the firetuck is visible.

The school did their best to support students’ mental health, but it was extremely difficult without any external help. Funding required for students to see an external councillor once a week through the school had been cut. The mental health support that so many students were relying on was gone. We were told that we would be getting councillors through the bushfire relief program, but they never came.

Time and time again we were let down by those who had promised us the most.

Talking with my wellbeing teacher, it was next to impossible to get students referred to the government system, NECAMHS. NECAMHS is impossible to get into as it is over-prescribed and understaffed. There is no doubt that mental health issues would detract from our ability to learn, and it has already proved detrimental to our learning experience.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, I have personally seen a surge in the cases of students needing assistance with their mental health. Our community didn’t quite recover after the fires; it has only been two months. Families are now lucky to have even have a single source of income in these uncertain times. The bushfires have seemed to be forgotten by the rest of Australia.

It is a stressful time for everybody, but what about the ones still recovering from the trauma that the summer brought?

The students and young people of North East Victoria need help. They need help with their mental health and how to deal with this trauma. Schools that have been affected by fire need help supporting their staff and students because one teacher to 500 students is not enough.

We already know that the lockdown and self-isolation can be really harmful to our mental health, but what about the people who are already battling their demons? Dealing with the outbreak of COVID-19 is tough enough as it is, but coupled with the trauma of the bushfires is a recipe for disaster.

The fires are still burning and will be for the next few months but are contained. We are safe now. But the burn-offs that are happening now bring back traumatic memories of the days leading up to the evacuation. It’s times like these when people need help. I’ve heard too many stories of volunteer firefighters taking their own life after the fires. I don’t want that to happen to a student or community member.

We need mental health support that is easily accessible. We need help. Help our schools take care of their students’ wellbeing, and not just their studies.

A note from the Department of Education

The Department of Education and Training has provided an opportunity for the author to work with them directly to advise on support in that area as a response to these concerns and feedback.

Additional Supports

The Government set out a support package for schools and communities impacted by in January and March this year. This included funding to:

  • boost mental health support for government and non-government schools.

  • provide trauma response support to affected schools and kindergarten services.

  • provide advice and training to parents and school staff to support their children through the long-term process of recovery.

This meant that two disaster recovery practitioners were sent to the North East region, and each school was granted $5,000, with more support coming in term two.

Supports for students, educators and the school community

There are a number of services available to students. This includes:

  • Dedicated headspace counselling for Victorian government school secondary students. You can access this service if you have a referral from a central contact person in your school.

    • extra funding has been provided to headspace centres in fire-affected areas to support youth and assist with managing any increased demand for services.

    • It may be worth contacting either the Albury Wodonga (02) 6055 9555 or Shepparton headspace centres (03) 5823 8800 for advice on what additional support they may be able to provide.

  • Telehealth services offers mental health services via video conference. You’re not required to have a diagnosed mental health condition, mental health plan or referral to access this service. You’ll be able to receive this service from any eligible practitioner – this includes GPs, psychologists, occupational therapists and social workers.

  • Future online events offering support through recovery for teachers, school leaders and parents are currently being planned for Term Two.

  • The Australian Government’s Student Wellbeing Hub where students can access advice and information about wellbeing, identifying and understanding family violence and abuse, and how to look after your physical and mental health.

There are also a number of other external support services and resources available including Kids Helpline, eheadspace, Beyond Blue and Smiling Mind.

Cover image: bright mystic valley by Brendan, reproduced here with permission

In-text image: © Jean-Pierre Ronco Photography

About the author

Claire VicSRC Executive Committee 2020-21