In a previous blog post we discussed the link between the December 2019 bushfires that were ravaging parts of NSW and Victoria and one’s mental well-being. Since we published the article, the fires have escalated and we believed we needed to write an update.
The catastrophic 2019/20 Australian bushfires pose a significant risk of trauma. It may be evident that people with ‘direct’ contact with the fires, such as front line workers (firefighters and volunteers) and those who have had to escape fires or protect their homes, are at risk of trauma.
See below an ABC News segment on trauma caused by direct exposure to the Australian bushfires.
However it may be less obvious that people who are removed from the direct threat can also be traumatised, through a process psychologists call ‘vicarious trauma’.
What is Vicarious Trauma?
Vicarious trauma is the experience of trauma and its symptoms, as a product of having exposure to images, reports, news and articles on traumatic events. In our digital age, with daily access to images of the bushfire catastrophe, the risk of vicarious trauma is magnified exponentially, and can spread out globally.
We have already seen the immense impact that images of the Australian bushfires are having on domestic and international audiences, with numerous commentary from prominent people and organisations.
Vicarious trauma is caused by the undermining of people’s confidence in their safety, due to ‘witnessing’ (whether on the television or social media) life threatening events. When people feel fundamentally unsafe in their surroundings, it can lead to symptoms of trauma.
The phenomena of vicarious trauma has been documented following other historical traumatic events such as the attack on the New York Twin Towers in 2001, where there was an increase in trauma responses from those who were not directly victims of the tragedy.
What are the symptoms of Vicarious Trauma?
The symptoms of vicarious trauma are the same as with any trauma. It can initially involve shock, feelings of numbness, difficulty with concentration, and a need to withdraw.
In the long term, it can manifest in symptoms of anxiety, such as a generalised fear, long term feelings of being unsafe, difficulty with sleeping, tiredness and irritability. Different people will respond differently to trauma.
It is important to note that symptoms may arise in the months after the traumatic event, even after people appeared to be coping well initially.
Who is at risk of Vicarious Trauma?
Anyone can be at risk of vicarious trauma. However, there may be some populations that are more at risk than others including:
- people with an existing anxiety disorder
- young children
- those with previous experience of trauma
- people with family or friends who are direct victims of the bushfires
What can we do to assist family or friends who appear to be distressed by the bushfires, and may be developing early signs of vicarious trauma?
If you notice that family and friends are behaving differently, such as being more withdrawn or distracted, it is a good idea to ‘touch base’ with them to see how they are going. This is especially the case for family or friends who you know have a history or trauma or anxiety. Ask them what they are thinking and feeling, and directly ask whether they are feeling distressed about the bushfires.
Talking directly about the bushfires help people experiencing distress to understand their feelings, and to validate their emotions, rather than avoid it. Talking also helps people to contextualise their fears and link it directly to the bushfires, rather than ‘generalise’ their fears to other areas of their life.
With children, it is important to allow them to talk about their fears, and to provide reassurance that they are safe. It is also important to limit children’s access to images or reports on the bushfires, because this undermines their feelings of safety.
Be mindful that symptoms of trauma can arise weeks and months after the incident. So be aware to notice changes in your loved ones over a longer term period.
If you or anyone you know needs further help, see your GP or mental health practitioner for support.