bushfires impact children's mental health

How bushfires impact children’s mental health

Evidence shows bushfire events negatively impact children’s mental health, research urgently needed to identify evidence-based interventions and support

A literature review published today in the Medical Journal of Australia’s (MJA) special supplement on Evidence Gaps in Rural Research shows an increased risk of poorer mental health outcomes for children as a result of bushfires.

Commissioned by the Spinifex Network and co-authored by Charles Sturt University and Australian children’s charity Royal Far West, “The Impact of Bushfire on the Wellbeing of Children Living in Rural and Remote Australia: A Rapid Review” investigated both the dynamics associated with mental health and development of children impacted by bushfire, and which interventions lead to better outcomes for these children.

Charles Sturt University’s Head of School, School of Community Health, Associate Professor, and co-author of the report, Michael Curtin said: “The findings of this rapid review have identified that children exposed to bushfires may be at increased risk of poorer wellbeing outcomes. Children particularly at risk are those from more vulnerable backgrounds who may have other compounding factors, limiting their ability to overcome bushfire trauma.”

 Although several studies investigated the short and long-term impact of exposure to bushfire on children and adolescents, there were no studies found that highlighted effective interventions to reduce the risk of the impact of bushfire.

Jacqui Emery, Royal Far West’s Executive Director, Business, People and Culture, said the lack of evidence for interventions to help children recover was a serious concern given the likelihood of more bushfires in Australia.

It is essential that we are able to help children recover as a priority, based on the best evidence, to ensure any future outcomes as a result of bushfire are better managed,” Ms Emery said.

Key findings from the literature review include:

Children exposed to bushfire reported higher levels of mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety compared with those not exposed to fire, especially in the short to medium term.

The impact of bushfire exposure may not be apparent in the short term but may become more pronounced later in life. Exposure to trauma in children may only be noticed at later stages of development when higher order cognitive abilities and skills emerge.

There is no (bushfire specific) evidence identified that supports intervention to improve the outcomes for this population, though research into other disasters indicates there are sound foundations to consider for successful approaches.

Given the likely increase in bushfire events in Australia, research into effective interventions should be a priority.

 Ms Emery said the literature review will contribute to better understanding the short, medium and long-term impact of bushfire on children, and the development of evidence-based interventions and policy to support children in the bush, where most bushfires occur, and where service access is already a significant challenge.

“The findings highlight the  importance of evaluating interventions that aim to  reduce the risk of long-term negative impact of the bushfire on their wellbeing, such as the Bushfire Recovery Program* we are undertaking with UNICEF Australia, to determine its efficacy and impact,” she added.

Associate Professor Curtin said the research helps us understand the mental health, behavioral and developmental outcomes for children impacted by bushfire, and is an important resource for government and policy makers.

 

*Charles Sturt University is currently undertaking an independent evaluation on the effectiveness of this program.

 

Read the Medical Journal of Australia article.

 

Interviewees:

Charles Sturt University:

Head of School, School of Community Health, Associate Professor Michael Curtin

Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Speech and Language Pathology Dr. Sarah Verdon, PhD.

Royal Far West:

Jacqui Emery, Executive Director, Business People and Culture, and Bushfire Recovery Program lead

 

Contact details:

For interviews with Charles Sturt University’s Associate Professor Michael Curtin or Dr Sarah Verdon contact Lisa Ditchfield 0417 125 795 or news@csu.edu.au

For interviews with Royal Far West’s Executive Director Jacqui Emery contact Deb Gibbons

0413 554 834 or debg@royalfarwest.org.au