Producers facing mental health crossroads

Unique circumstances facing producers recovering from floods

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Flinders Medical Centre GP Sheilagh Cronin has seen informal social occasions as an outlet for people to share their experiences of the north west monsoon. Picture - Sally Cripps.

Flinders Medical Centre GP Sheilagh Cronin has seen informal social occasions as an outlet for people to share their experiences of the north west monsoon. Picture - Sally Cripps.

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With the immediate trauma of the floods receding, affected producers are only just starting to come to grips with the full scale of the long-term recovery.

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With the immediate trauma of the floods receding, affected producers are only just starting to come to grips with the full scale of the long-term recovery.

Queensland psychologist Selena Gomersall was on the ground in the aftermath of the floods and her team from Outback Futures has been in the region many times since.

She said there was a unique set of mental health challenges faced by producers and their families as they started to get their lives back on track.

"With the families that directly experienced damage, there's a real sense that they are finishing the logistical aspects of the crisis - the re-fencing and cleaning up and that sort of thing - and moving back into the jobs of normal life," she said.

"Families are just starting to be at a crossroads. They have the opportunity to either knuckle back into life and pretend nothing has happened, or face the fact that things are different and now there's a new normal."

Related: Outback Futures need huge

Signs of trauma such as differences in behaviour could start appearing as the adrenalin rush of the flood clean-up started to slowly fade away, Ms Gomersall said.

"There are going to be some families that start to notice some of the more subtle impacts of the flood, especially as they are moving out of the crisis and clean-up stage.

"They might notice things like children behaving in different ways or acting out. Or a partner is not quite the way they used to be, maybe they're withdrawn or drinking more or not communicating well.

"What's left after the initial response are the things that aren't so easily fixable."

Familiar routines

Settling back into old routines would help as the pace of the clean-up and recovery started to calm down, Ms Gomersall said.

"There are little things people can do, like trying to get back to simple routines in life, reading bedtime stories and following a daily routine that we used to follow," she said.

"How do they get back those things that were precious to them and their children and their family."

The stoic nature of many living on the land in outback Queensland presented a challenge, Ms Gomersall said.

"We are finding it quite challenging to get people to come forward.

"People feel like it's been several months now, they've done the recovery, and now is time to pull up their socks and get on with life.

They don't give themselves permission to realise now is when the tough journey begins - Selena Gomersall, Outback Futures

The isolation of many producers in the flood-stricken north west region could also be difficult to overcome, Ms Gomersall said.

"Isolation plays a big part. People can go back to their properties and then be left wondering whether it is just them experiencing something, or whether it is normal.

"When you are isolated like that you can begin to make assumptions about what you should be doing or what your kids should be feeling. You don't get the chance to debrief and process."

Related: Devastated town sees light in the tunnel

Telehealth is one of the vehicles being offered that could help overcome the isolation and remoteness felt by some, according to Sheilagh Cronin, senior GP at the Flinders Medical Centre in Cloncurry.

These are now supported by Medicare, she said.

Dr Cronin has been in north west Queensland for 14 years and in the west for 29 years, some of that time as a grazier herself, so she understands how people are feeling more than most.

For those on the land, the connection with their livestock brought strong ramifications when disaster struck.

"Some people don't realise that graziers love their livestock and look after them from when they are born.

"To see them die is terrible but knowing that they suffered is even more distressing.

"To lose thousands is devastating. Even now they're still finding random carcasses."

Dr Cronin said it was important to understand that people were resilient but not superhuman.

"When you've been through an awful time, you get a bit tired of people saying, you're so resilient. You think, when's this going to end."

As a former Rural Doctors Association of Australia and RDAQ president, and having just stepped down as the chair of the Western Queensland Primary Health Network, Dr Cronin was cognisant of the critical need for a mental health focus in all aspects of doctoring in the bush.

She said that when the PHN was set up four years ago, they decided to have a big mental health focus, which meant on-ground services could easily be stepped up to meet the need in the wake of the disaster.

"We try to use existing agencies and strengthen those and be able to increase the number of visits they're doing," she said.

The service has always worked closely with the council and had a collaborative arrangement with the council and Queensland Health, who own the practice along with Rural Health Management.

"We're trying to keep everything coordinated and accessible," Dr Cronin said.

Alongside professional outlets, she said one of the main things that had really helped people was having a means to get together.

"The feedback I've had is that when they've managed to get together, whether it's a barbecue or some function, where they've been able to talk to each other what they are going through, they found that really supportive."

In addition to the social gatherings, individual workers were doing a great job, alongside the Flying Padres, Jeanette and David Ellis.

"Quiet support is good," Dr Cronin said.

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