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Supporting the wellbeing of rural people experiencing disasters: what does the evidence say?

Date: December 14, 2020
Author: Professor David Perkins, Director of the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health

We are approaching the anniversaries of the worst bushfire season in memory and the wounds are fresh. The fires followed an extensive drought and climate experts expect such events to become more frequent and more intense.  Given the human and community cost of these disasters we need to understand the best evidence and know what to do.

An article published in the Medical Journal of Australia on 14 December 2020 provides a rigorous review of the literature and provides some key pointers of how we should respond.

The most concerning finding is that there is a lack of evidence about the best interventions to support wellbeing through the three stages of disaster planning, immediate response and long-term response.  Strong evidence does not mean controlled trials.  We need to use the best research methods possible which include evidence from survivors, responders, evaluators, and researchers bringing together evidence across different scenarios.

The impact on individuals, families and communities varies and cannot always be predicted. Few studies have been published about interventions which address the planning, immediate response, and long-term impacts of different disasters. We need to look at the experience of disasters from the viewpoint of rural residents and their communities to aid local recovery and adaptation.

One Australian example is the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program which covers the whole of rural New South Wales and has been in operation for more than ten years.  The program has Coordinators who live and work throughout the state partnering with local health and support services to build local resilience and help communities respond to disasters. This increases trust and continuity of care.

Perhaps the overwhelming message as we remember one bushfire season and face another is that these events are not discrete but part of a pattern of adverse events that we should plan for and respond to both immediately and in the long term. Such preparation should involve local residents as well as health, and social care providers since they will remain when the visiting crisis and short-term support providers have gone.


Article mentioned above:

Goodwin, N., Lewis, S., Dalton, H., and Prael, G. (2020) What interventions best support the health and wellbeing needs of rural populations experiencing natural disasters?Medical Journal of Australia, 213: Chapter 2, S10-S13.e1. 10.5694/mja2.50881.



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