Major events like relationship breakdowns or the death of a loved one can be life-changing. However, if an entire community goes through a challenging period like we are seeing with the bushfires throughout multiple Australian states, we need to work to ensure the impact of each person’s experience doesn’t compound to create more layers of difficulty.
At the same time, this shared experience allows communities and workplaces to come together to give and receive support in a way they may not do so otherwise. It's this connectedness that benefits any community, workplace or family and there are ways we can all harness connection as the single most protective factor against mental illness.
Making time to consciously foster these connections can enable people to come out of really trying times with a greater understanding of others and themselves. This can take an intentional effort so that it doesn't drop off over time, placing us at risk of prolonged stress which can lead to depression and anxiety disorders. Here’s how!
Relationships take time – build them slowly
Being in a position to have a real conversation about how someone is actually going can’t happen out of nowhere. Take the time to learn about their life and what they like to chat about over time. Not only does this allow you to establish a ‘baseline’ against which you can identify changes in behaviour or mood, it also takes the sting out of these tough conversations. Hopefully, this will make your attempt to initiate a conversation more authentic and comfortable for you both. It’s no secret that opening up about what’s going on in your head can take a major load off your shoulders – it can also encourage others to open up too.
If someone is doing it really tough – ask how you can help
Experiences that aren’t within our control often leave people feeling powerless. Something that can help a friend, neighbour, colleague or member of your community to restore some sense of control in their life is to ask their permission for anything that you do. This will also allow them to direct you to the most effective way you could provide support. The act of giving support to someone else is also one of the proven ways to improve your own wellbeing.
Know what to do when you’re not feeling good
Not feeling good is your trigger to pick up the phone, text or go and visit someone you know. Even a short chat can bring us back to the present moment and away from feelings of worry. Everyone will have different coping mechanisms so it’s important to know what yours are. Often people find that doing something practical gets them out of their heads. Practising mindfulness using an app like Smiling Mind or Headspace can get you ready for those times you need to focus on the present rather than dwelling on the past or future.
Give yourself permission to feel how you feel
Feelings of loss and sadness – even if they aren't your own – can challenge us personally, as it is natural to share the pain of others. These feelings are completely normal at any time, and even more so during difficult circumstances. Your experience will be as unique as you are and there's no right or wrong way to go through trying times. Give yourself permission to feel how you feel, and remind yourself that it will get easier.
Care for yourself
Sometimes it can be tough to help others. It can leave us feeling tired, sad or low. It’s as important to care for yourself as it is to care for those around you. An important part of this is knowing what your limits are. We all have limits to our time, our energy and our skills. By knowing the limit of what you can do, and by not going beyond that limit, you can avoid doing damage to yourself and the other person.
Find support when you need it
The mental health sector has developed excellent resources which collate helpful information around how to cope with natural disasters. We would encourage anyone impacted by the bushfires or other traumatic events to familiarise yourself with these materials if you have an opportunity to do so.
How to cope with natural disasters
Talking to children and youth
Other sources of helpful information:
Legal Aid NSW
NSW Natural Disaster Assistance
Queensland Recovery after a disaster
Key national 24/7 crisis support services include:
13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
1300 789 978 www.mensline.org.au
1300 224 636 www.beyondblue.org.au
Key Youth Support Services include:
1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au
1800 650 890 www.headspace.org.au