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Black Summer bushfires leave lasting mental health impact


Mental health services in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island are still dealing with a “significant increase” in referrals after the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, according to a new report.

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Figures published in the Chief Psychiatrist of South Australia’s annual report show the Barossa Hills Fleurieu Local Health Network (BHFLHN) observed an approximately 30 per cent increase in referrals for specialist adult mental health services from March 2021 to March 2022.

The health network was granted an extra $2.1m in “surge funding” over the last two financial years to deal with the fallout of the 2019-20 Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island bushfires.

Over the same March 2021 to 2022 period, SA Health’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) recorded a 57 per cent increase in referrals across bushfire affected regions.

Chief psychiatrist Dr John Brayley warned that bushfire-related trauma can emerge years after the event, creating a “second surge” in demand for mental health services.

“There has been a significant increase in referrals to mental health services in the bushfire affected regions compared to pre-bushfire activity,” Brayley’s report states.

“Although many new referrals in these areas may not attribute their referral to the bushfire impacts as the primary reason for referral, it is common that the bushfire impacts are a significant contributing factor and may have exacerbated other concerns that had otherwise been self-managed previously without requiring a mental health service.”

The report also states that 95 per cent of CAMHS’s new mental health referrals in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island were people “directly-affected” by bushfires.

“[This indicates] that both the children and their caregivers have significant mental health needs requiring a holistic, whole-of-family approach,” the report added.

The 2019-20 Kangaroo Island fires burnt 211,474 hectares of land and resulted in two deaths, 87 homes destroyed and 59,730 livestock lost.

The disaster affected nearly half the island’s land mass and accounted for around 75 per cent of all hectares burnt in South Australia during the Black Summer fires.

The Cudlee Creek blaze tore through nearly 25,000 hectares of land within a 127-kilometre perimeter in the Adelaide Hills, resulting in one death and destroying nearly 100 homes.

Brayley has previously warned that the mental health response to events like bushfires can last up to five years.

His report said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic just months after the Black Summer bushfires compounded the mental health fallout.

“The overlay of COVID-19 has created further impacts on these communities and has prolonged individual and community recovery,” the report states.

“The opportunities for social connectedness and bushfire recovery initiatives that would typically aid recovery have been significantly disrupted during the pandemic.

“This has been further compromised in the Kangaroo Island region due to challenges with connectivity leading to significant barriers to delivering services via online platforms during the pandemic.”

The report also noted increasing referrals across the Adelaide Hills region during the most recent 2021-22 fire season amid a “reactivation of bushfire related trauma for those already accessing specialist services”.

“Current referral themes have included new consumers that have not received or sought therapeutic services prior to, or since, the 2019 Cudlee Creek Fires, in addition to a resurgence of referrals from Adelaide Hills community members affected by the Sampson Flat fires in 2015,” the report states.

An additional 9.5 full time equivalent clinical staff were deployed across CAMHS and BHFLHN as part of the state government’s Bushfire Mental Health Recovery project.

The additional funding expired on June 30, 2022, although BHFLHN and CAMHS have been able to extend a combined six full time equivalent mental health staff to work across Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills until 31 December 2022, according to the report.

An evaluation report on the Bushfire Mental Health Recovery project is nearly completed.

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