By Alexandra Crawford, Clinical Psychology Team Leader
Over the last 12 months, children from rural and remote Australia have experienced unprecedented community traumas such as the 2019-2020 summer bushfires and COVID-19, on top of the ongoing drought and the floods that followed the fires in many regions. At RFW, these events have been associated with an increase in the number of children in need of mental health support and, for many, the severity of their mental health difficulties.
The nature of the traumas experienced by the children from these communities also presents a challenge for the Psychologists working to support them. The presence of COVID-19 has not ended, and we don’t know when it will. The threat of future natural disasters such as the bushfires is very real – already we are entering another bushfire season. It is a natural human response to feel uncertainty, anxiety, depression and a variety of other unpleasant feelings, in a situation like this.
To help us develop new ways to approach therapy with our clients in these unprecedented times, our team was lucky enough to receive training from Dr Louise Hayes earlier this year. Louise is a Clinical Psychologist and world expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (also known as “ACT”).
The main skills developed in ACT are:
Noticing thoughts and feelings and without getting caught up in them or trying to avoid experiencing them.
Understanding why your mind reacts the way it does.
Acting in ways that improve your life and are driven by what is most important to you.
The third skill is one that many members of the RFW team have particularly enjoyed incorporating into our sessions. It involves doing activities with our clients that centre on their values. Values are the qualities and concepts that are most important to our client. One client’s values may be different to the next one’s, so it is very important to understand this for every client we see.
For instance, some clients have stopped going outside due to severe anxiety. If one of these clients really values nature and doing physical activity, and used to do a lot of bike riding before last summer, encouraging them to reflect on these values can assist in motivating them to work on their anxiety. But if another client really values learning, knowledge and creativity, and they are spending all day reading, doing art and watching documentaries inside, it makes sense they would be less motivated to go outside!
This doesn’t mean we don’t encourage the second client to go outside, but we will be having a very different conversation with them and perhaps helping them set different goals that make more sense to them.
Clients whose values centre on health, family, friends and nature are likely to be particularly distressed by recent events. COVID-19 is highly contagious and potentially deadly for certain people who contract it, so it makes sense that children who highly value their own health and the wellbeing of friends and family would experience more anxiety right now. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced during the last Australian bushfire season, making it one of “worst wildlife disasters in modern history” accordingly to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). So, for children who care deeply about nature, it would be particularly distressing for them to see the destruction and hear about the impact on animals.
How we can use values to help children through these events:
Name and validate feelings – e.g. “it’s really sad to see the news right now – isn’t it?”; “You’re really worried about nan – it’s hard that we can’t visit her right now”.
Keep as much routine and predictability as possible – this is known to assist in recovery from trauma and improving emotional regulation. These community events have increased uncertainty for everyone, so doing things to help children feel safe and know they can trust the adults around them can help them cope better. Even if it is challenging to keep routine right now, if children trust that you will explain the changes to them before they happen, this can make a big difference.
Limit exposure to the news and, when they do watch it, spend time talking with them about what they saw and answer their questions in simple, age-appropriate language.
Use the child’s values to help them feel more in control and make a meaningful contribution to their community. The possible ways to approach this are endless. For instance, for children who value nature, it could involve getting involved in Landcare or WWF, helping them learn how to take care of animals by giving them a pet, helping them learn how to take care of plants by giving them their own patch of garden, or supporting their participation in climate action organisations such as Fridays for Future. Some children could also benefit from being involved in helping make a household plan for the next bushfire season – so they are making a meaningful contribution to protecting the family, pets and house, and can feel safer going into next summer with a plan. The Rural Fire Service have some great resources online for bushfire survival plans.
Connect with a mental health professional such as a Psychologist, School Counsellor or Mental Health Social Worker if you are really concerned about your child’s emotional wellbeing.
To find out more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for children and adolescents, there are some great resources on Dr Hayes’ website.
Read more about Alexandra and her role at Royal Far West
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