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Why the recovery process isn't a straight line on the graph

How does a community heal after an incident like the Bourke Street Mall tragedy?

Wednesday January 25, 2017

floral tributes at Bourke Street Mall
Photo credit: Zayne D'Crus

The impact of the tragic situation at Bourke Street Mall has rippled through Australia's collective consciousness.

It has affected many people, from the families and friends of those who died; to those who were injured; emergency services personnel and the agencies such as Red Cross who were on the scene to offer support.

It also affected many Australians as they watched the tragedy unfold. At the vigil following the Bourke Street Mall incident, the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Martine Letts said: "The mourning is also the beginning of our healing".

Australian Red Cross is very familiar with the healing process through its work helping communities recover after traumatic events.

So how does a community 'heal' after a situation like this?

The National Recovery Coordinator at Australian Red Cross, Kate Brady says recovery is a complex process.

"It's important to understand that 'recovery' is a complex process for people. There's no quick fix."

"A common misconception is that recovery means returning to 'normal life' as quickly and efficiently as possible.  However, in our experience, recovery isn't a straight line on the graph. It's possible to make recovery progress and then suffer set backs over time."

"It's also important to understand that things may never go back to 'normal' and there will be a 'new normal'. While it might be a bumpy ride, most people recover well with the support of their friends and family and by asking for help if they need it."

Kate says the first thing to remember is that recovery starts on 'day one'.

"Our experience suggests that it is critically important to provide recovery support as part of the response to an emergency. That's why we had over 150 staff and volunteers in the hours and days following the incident. We provided psychological first aid, which can be just as simple as talking to someone about what's happened and giving them reassurance and support."

"When the situation is new, there are opportunities to provide support that may not be available later. It also lets people know that they can seek help as they recover."  

Red Cross provides support to communities so they stay strong for each other. Kate says this is vital.

"Our experience shows that communities with what we call 'good social capital' will recover faster. 'Social capital' includes resilience and the strength of local networks, social trust and strong connections. These strong communities can work together to solve common problems."  

An emergency situation or disaster can also have a profound psychological effect on a community. Kate Brady says a significant proportion of the community can be affected.   

"After an emergency, more than 80% of people affected will recover well without prolonged distress and without the event significantly impacting their mental health. While these people may well experience stress and distress, and may have to take proactive action toward recovery, with the help and support of their normal social networks, they will recover well with time."  

"However, the other 20% can experience a range of psychological symptoms ranging from mild and moderate forms of depression and anxiety disorders and PTSD through to severe and disabling mental conditions."  

So when is a person or a community considered 'recovered'?  

Anne Leadbeater is a community recovery consultant from Kinglake who played a key role in the 2009 Victorian Bushfire recovery program. She was also personally affected by the fires. Her definition of recovery fits well with the Australian Red Cross approach.  

"Being 'recovered' is being able to live a life you have reason to value."  For more information on recovering after disasters please visit the Australian Red Cross website.