After the Australian bushfires devastated communities on the New South Wales South Coast, there was barely time to take a breath before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the planet. The double trauma has left local communities more vulnerable to psychological distress and in greater need of additional support services.
In the Shoalhaven region specifically, there are concerns individuals and communities have not had adequate time to recover and put the natural disaster behind them.
According to Glenn Williams, psychologist and University of Wollongong’s (UOW) MIND the GaP (Mental Illness in Nowra District: Goals and Prevention) Project Manager, the impact from the Black Summer bushfires on the region was severe.
“There’s extensive loss of property, loss of forests and, for our Indigenous communities, a culturally intimate impact for the destruction to Country,” he says.
Before 2020, there was already a greater burden of health conditions in the Nowra region than all other communities in the Illawarra-Shoalhaven catchment area, with Nowra statistically above average across both NSW and on a national scale.
“After the fires we had a number of floods, which was fantastic in one way as it helped extinguish the fire, but it caused another round of distress,” Mr Williams explains. “Now we’re heading into another hot season and people haven’t had time to process past emergencies.”
The impact of 2020’s crises will be long-lasting for the Shoalhaven. UOW’s MIND the GaP facility located on UOW’s Shoalhaven Campus in West Nowra, anticipates a long-term need for professional clinical services.
“Psychological distress is a real legacy of the fires and I don’t believe people, as a community, have got on top of it yet,” Mr Williams identifies. “And, more broadly, COVID-19 has been stressful for people in the Shoalhaven.”
When MIND the GaP opened in July 2018 its aim was to support the mental health and wellbeing of all Shoalhaven residents and provide complementary services. It provides preventative care, with a major focus on suicide prevention, trauma recovery and community resilience.
The $3.5 million mental health and wellbeing facility brings together healthcare professionals, researchers and frontline support services. It includes research, consultation and assessment rooms, meeting spaces, a 60-seat conference and training room, outdoor courtyard and children’s play area.
MIND the GaP is partnered with Shoalhaven City Council and UOW together with a consortium of local and community partners, including: Lifeline South Coast, Lifeline Australia Research Foundation, Coordinaire, the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District (ISHLD), and Noah’s Inclusion Services.
“The bushfires and pandemic have added to existing economic and emotional stress levels.” Mr Williams says. “It manifests in different ways – depression, anxiety, and a potential increase in suicidality.”
Glenn Williams’ involvement with two community groups has highlighted a strong level of concern for people’s mental health across the region. Both the Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention and Awareness Network and the Illawarra and Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative (with 40 organisations as members) are engaging communities to help with an expected rise of psychological concerns this year.
“Sadly, during this time, we haven’t been able to provide the services we’d like to,” he shares. “Simply because our base of practitioners have been limited due to the pandemic.”
“We want to develop a multidisciplinary service that addresses rural and regional mental health, we need a doctor with an interest in mental health, a mental health nurse, and associated allied health specialists, to provide bulk-billing services,” Mr Williams says. “It’s a social-justice model.”
“What we need the most is commitment. Commitment from a consortium of mental health professionals (a doctor, psychologists, dieticians, exercise physiologists, social workers) to provide this multidisciplinary service for the region.”
This model would provide mental health training for interns from UOW studying medicine and a range of allied health professions with a focus on mental health in regional communities.
Mr Williams says there is a growing awareness of what they offer at MIND the GaP – a peaceful location which also includes running a parenting program.
“We’re starting to be recognised as a mental health space and people really like coming out here,” he says.
With the lingering legacy of the Black Summer bushfires, MIND the GaP is clear about the way forward for the Shoalhaven region. It will take a wholehearted commitment to forge the new path ahead.