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What to do if you’re feeling stressed or helpless about the Australian bushfire crisis

Blog post | 07 Jan 2020

The bushfire crisis has seen millions of hectares burnt, homes and wildlife habitat destroyed, and lives lost. Not surprisingly, feeling stressed, scared or anxious about the bushfires is completely normal, even if you've not been directly affected.

The constant stream of news, social media and work chat focused on the fires can also lead to a feeling of helplessness. You might be sad, worried, concerned for family or friends, or simply be wondering what you can do to help.

Feelings: what's normal and what's not

According to Beyond Blue, there is a range of common, normal reactions to an extraordinary situation like a natural disaster. They include:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling numb
  • not being able to focus or plan ahead
  • persistent tearfulness
  • intrusive memories and bad dreams
  • poor sleep
  • constant questioning
  • replaying events in your mind 

If these feelings don't subside over time, or they affect your ability to function for more than 2 months after the event, you should talk to your GP or a mental health professional.

You may be eligible for up to 10 free counselling sessions if affected by the bushfires (including emergency services personnel). This is in addition to the 10 psychological therapy sessions already offered for free to all Australians under Medicare; ask your doctor or mental health professional.

Some reactions, however, are beyond what's 'normal'. If you experience any of these at any time, you should seek help:

  • thoughts about suicide or self-harm
  • lack of hope or interest in the future
  • avoiding things that remind you of the event, so you're unable to carry out day-to-day tasks
  • being startled easily
  • feeling overwhelming fear for no reason
  • panic attack symptoms
  • excessive guilt

For some 'Dos and Don'ts' when it comes to dealing with the emotional impact of a disaster, visit Beyond Blue.

How to help kids cope with bushfire stress

If you're a parent, natural disasters such as bushfires can be upsetting for your child, even if they're not directly impacted by them. They might hear about them at school or childcare, or via other sources, including friends. Media coverage of a disaster can be particularly distressing, so it's important to limit your child's exposure to it.

Get more tips and learn how to explain natural disasters to children here.

You should also touch base with your neighbours and loved ones. If you're feeling upset or anxious, it's likely that others around you will be feeling a similar way.

Older people, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions may be more at risk of bushfire-smoke related illnesses such as asthma. Check on anyone you know who might be affected.

How to help bushfire victims and firefighters

It's great to want to do something to help — and it can make you feel better — but it's important to contribute in the right way.

Donate money

Many key charities and services have said they're unable to store and distribute donations of goods, food and clothes. The best way to help is to donate money. This also allows bushfire victims and local businesses to buy the things they really need.

Even a few dollars can make a big difference. Visit these sites to find out how you can contribute:

If you know someone who is personally impacted by the bushfires and they don't know how to seek financial help, suggest they check out the Australian Government Department of Human Services' Bushfires page.

Donate food and goods

If you do have non-perishable grocery items you'd like to donate to those affected by bushfires, visit Foodbank. If you have goods to donate, the Queensland Government-backed charity GIVIT provides specific donated items to those who need them.

Donate blood

So far, the bushfires have had a minimal impact on blood donor centres. But the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood service will continue to need 29,000 donations every week, so visit the website to book an appointment to donate blood.

How to find loved ones in bushfire-affected areas

Visit the Australian Red Cross website, Register.Find.Reunite, to find friends or family members living in bushfire-affected areas, or to register yourself as safe. The Red Cross can also share contact details (with permission) to reunite loved ones.

For more help and information

  • In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

  • Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 to speak with a trained mental health supporter, 24 hours a day.

  • Call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 to speak with a mental health professional, 24 hours a day.

  • Children and young adults (up to age 25) can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 to speak with a counsellor, 24 hours a day.

  • Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours a day.

  • Use the healthdirect Service Finder to locate a health professional near you, wherever you are in Australia. (If you are in a bushfire area, check the current opening times since they may have changed.)

  • Visit NSW Health for bushfire factsheets, air quality updates, information on managing medications during a disaster and more.

  • Visit Health Victoria for factsheets on trauma, bushfires and health and more, as well as air quality updates.

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