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To watch or not to watch?

By Dr Kate Brady, National Recovery Advisor, and Shona Whitton, National Coordinator, Recovery and Psychosocial Support at Australian Red Cross

You may have seen some of the ads for the upcoming ABC production FIRES that is being released this Sunday 26 September 2021. FIRES looks like it's a high-quality production, and we're sure it's been well done. This isn't a note about that.

A number of us at Red Cross have been receiving calls and emails from people who have seen the trailer for the show and are on edge about it. 

The trailer is quite intense and has footage of fires, sounds of alarms and emergency warnings and images of people who are distressed and clearly fearful for their lives.

It's hard to avoid advertisements for shows like this if they come into your social media feed or on TV when you're not expecting it. 

For some people, this won't bother them, and they'll either scroll on by or view with interest and mark it down as something they'd like to watch when it comes out.

Other people will find the trailers upsetting or unnerving. It's common to feel some stress reactions when you see footage like this, especially if you have been impacted by disasters (personally or professionally). You might notice your heart start to beat faster, your breathing become quicker and you might feel a bit shaken. You might find yourself replaying it in your head after it has finished, and you might feel fidgety, or on edge.

If you are feeling rattled when you see this footage, it might be worth thinking about whether you should watch the show when it comes out. 

Some people who work or live in disaster-affected communities can feel a sense of obligation to watch show like this - that they have a responsibility to bear witness to the stories. We want to assure you that you don't have to watch. You can still be empathetic and invested in the recovery of people affected by these bushfires without watching this show. It's good practice to think about protecting your well-being so that you can keep showing up in other ways.

If you're on the fence about whether to watch it or not, here are some things you might find helpful to ask yourself:

  • Is this the right time for me to watch a show I think I could have a strong response to (for example, if you're living in lockdown and don't have as much social interaction to discuss it with others) - could I watch this at a later date?
  • Why am I thinking about watching it? Is it because I want to or I feel like I should?
  • If I watch it and I have a strong reaction, what are some things I can do to settle myself back down? Who will I talk to about my feelings?

We have some resources available to help with coping after a crisis and a new podcast ‘After the Disaster’ out this week.

When we first started working in disaster recovery, we were voracious consumers of all disaster related media. News stories, TV shows, documentaries, music, movies, YouTube clips, witness statements to Commissions and enquiries. You name it, we watched, read it, shared favourites with each other, and spent many hours discussing the finer points over the phone.

Feelings of intense obligation to 'not look away' drove our consumption of disaster. That if only we watched enough, heard enough, read enough we would be better disaster recovery workers.

Now that we have both worked in disaster recovery for more than a decade, we don't often watch disaster related footage, unless it's essential to our work. We have a better understanding of how repetitive media exposure affects us.

For Kate, she often doesn't feel well after she watches disaster footage and now understands that it makes it harder for her to do her job effectively. It makes it feels like she has been exposed to more disaster affected people than she actually has, and her threshold for calm, clear thinking and empathy is lowered.

For Shona, watching disaster footage seems OK at the time but when she watches too much she finds it gradually takes the colour out of life. It feels like only sad, tragic things happen and that beauty and joy are only fleeting. It makes her sad and grumpy. Not a good combo.

So, now we choose not to watch.

Whether you choose to watch FIRES when it is released or not, we hope you're taking care of yourself.