To improve firefighters’ mental health, we can’t wait for them to reach out – we need to ‘reach in’


Erin Smith, Edith Cowan University

Many firefighters will by now be exhausted, having been on the front line of Australia’s bushfire crisis for weeks or months.

This bushfire season has been unrelenting, and the hottest months of summer may still lie ahead.

In part, the toll is physical. The flames are high, they are intense, and they move fast. It’s hard to breathe because the air is so hot.

At the same time, first responders have witnessed widespread devastation. To land and livelihoods, to people and animals. Meanwhile, grief for the death of fellow firefighters feels raw, and the risk to their own lives very real.

We’re right to be concerned about firefighters’ mental health.




Read more:
‘I can still picture the faces’: Black Saturday firefighters want you to listen to them, not call them ‘heroes’


Emergency responders already have poorer mental health

Every 4.3 weeks, a firefighter, paramedic or police officer dies by suicide – and that’s when it’s “business as usual”.

Research shows our first responders are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition than the overall Australian population. They are more than twice as likely to think about suicide, and three times as likely to have a suicide plan.

This paints a grim picture of the well-being of a population who dedicate their professional lives to helping others.




Read more:
As bushfires intensify, we need to acknowledge the strain on our volunteers


It’s likely responding to a disaster on the scale of the current bushfires could increase the risk of mental illness for some.

If firefighters are not coping, they may develop psychological disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

PTSD

PTSD develops when a person isn’t able to recover after experiencing a traumatic event.

Some firefighters may develop symptoms while they’re still fighting the fires. They may feel on edge, but push down their fears to get on with the job. However, it’s more likely symptoms will only appear weeks, months, even years down the track.

PTSD is associated with significant impairment in day-to-day functioning socially and at work. For firefighters and others with PTSD, typical symptoms or behaviours will include:

  • reliving the traumatic event. People with PTSD describe vivid images and terrifying nightmares of their experience

  • avoiding reminders of what happened. They may become emotionally numb and isolate themselves to avoid any triggers

  • being constantly tense and jumpy, always looking out for signs of danger.

Volunteers in regional communities are particularly susceptible to trauma. They have often joined fire brigades to help protect their own communities, and then face trying to save their own homes or those of neighbours and friends.

We also need to be mindful of retired firefighters for whom these current bushfires will have triggered painful and disturbing memories. They may not currently be on the front lines, but they only need to turn on the television, open the newspaper, or look at social media to be taken straight back to Black Saturday or whatever particular event is distressing for them.




Read more:
Paramedics need more support to deal with daily trauma


The problem with reaching out

The increased prevalence of mental health issues among emergency responders suggests many existing emergency service well-being programs are failing those who need them the most.

In Australia, these programs are largely based on a what’s called a “resilience model” that focuses on people “reaching out” and seeking help when they need it.

First responders may be unlikely to take this initiative in the middle of a mental health crisis, when it’s often a struggle even to pick up the phone to a loved one, friend or colleague.

Some firefighters might not reach out for help when they need it.
Jacob Carracher, Author provided

Instead, we need an approach to well-being that removes the onus on the individual. We need to shift our thinking from a model that requires the individual to “reach out”, to a model that also values others “reaching in” to identify those who may be struggling.

Ambulance Victoria’s Peer Support Dog Program, which allows staff to bring in accredited dogs to create social interactions and conversations, is a good example of how “reaching in” helps with first responder well-being. This kind of approach empowers people through social connections and the appreciation they are also supporting others.

While employers need to do more in to facilitate “reach in” programs, anyone can create informal support networks. Whether friendship groups, community groups, sporting groups, or something else, the underlying thread should be a committment to each other’s well-being.




Read more:
The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


As we continue to contend with this crisis, ensuring firefighters feel supported can make a difference to their well-being. If you see a responder in the street, say thank you. If you see one in a cafe, shout them a cuppa. If you have kids, get them to write a letter or draw a picture and drop it off to the local emergency services station.

We can’t eliminate the risk firefighters will suffer with mental health problems after what they’ve been through, but these little acts of kindness can make a difference.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Erin Smith, Associate Professor in Disaster and Emergency Response, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Beware of bushfire scams: how fraudsters take advantage of those in need



Australians were also cheated out of A$400,000 last year in charity scams.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Cassandra Cross, Queensland University of Technology

There’s been an overwhelming outpouring of love and support around the world for those impacted by the bushfires, from social-media donation drives to music concerts to authors auctioning off their books.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, we’ve also seen a number of scams directed at those who want to help, as well as victims of the fires.

In recent days, the ACCC set up a hotline dedicated to the reporting of scams associated with the bushfire crisis. The agency notes some 86 scams have been reported since the fires started in September – and counting.

While it’s difficult to believe offenders would seek to profit from other people’s generosity and heartache, this is entirely to be expected.

What types of scams are common

Research has found natural disasters are a catalyst for increased fraud schemes globally. This was the case after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2011 Japanese tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, just to name a few.




Read more:
How to donate to Australian bushfire relief: give money, watch for scams and think long term


In Australia, the current bushfire crisis has led to the creation of fake fund-raising websites, fraudulent door-knocking donation campaigns and fake calls from banks offering disaster relief funds.

In addition to the ACCC, several other consumer affairs agencies have issued warnings about these schemes.

The ongoing problem of fraud

In 2018, Australians lost over A$489.7 million to fraud. While a large part of this was through investment and romance fraud schemes ($146.5 million), Australians were also cheated out of A$210,000 in charity frauds. This increased to over A$400,000 in 2019.

The key element to fraud is lying for financial gain. Offenders will use whatever means possible to manipulate and deceive people into giving them money. This can involve obtaining money directly from a person, or by convincing victims to provide personal information to get cash through identity theft.

In charity frauds, offenders sometimes use the legitimate name of an organisation or individual to secure donations from victims, or they might use the pretext of a natural disaster or other negative event to obtain cash.

Harnessing the goodwill of strangers

Fraudsters use natural disasters in a variety of ways. They take advantage of our sense of sympathy and desire to help victims struggling through terrible events unfolding before our eyes. They also convey a sense of urgency aimed at convincing people to immediately part with their cash.

Importantly, offenders also exploit the fact people are highly motivated during times of disaster to donate money they ordinarily would not consider giving.




Read more:
It’s not about money: we asked catfish why they trick people online


Social media enables offenders to readily advertise their fraudulent schemes. With online fraud, it is often difficult for victims to authenticate email accounts, websites, individuals or organisations soliciting money. Offenders often create fake documentation to support their schemes, as well.

Social media can also be used by fraudsters in disinformation campaigns. As these posts are shared across platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, offenders can generate traction for their “charity” pitch before it is identified as fraud. By this stage, it can be too late.

Victims vulnerable in disaster recovery, too

It’s important to note the risk of fraud is not limited to the time of the actual disaster, or the immediate aftermath.

Many of those who have experienced loss or damage in the bushfires, for instance, face a long road to recovery and could be susceptible to scams at any time.

Research indicates negative life events can make a person more vulnerable to fraud. Those affected by the bushfires may find themselves the victims of fraudulent investment opportunities, romantic relationships and other schemes claiming to help them get their lives back on track.

For example, offenders may offer to assist with the negotiation of mortgage repayments with banks, obviously for a fee (large or small).

Protecting ourselves against fraud

There are steps people can take to protect themselves from scams as the bushfire crisis is unfolding – and into the future.

In the short term, it’s important to think about how we donate financially to those in need. There are many appeals that have been set up by registered charities and organisations (such as the Red Cross, the CFA, and the RFS). These are the safest ways to send money. Remember requests through social media channels and other platforms may not be genuine.

Importantly, the internet is not the only way offenders operate. Fraudsters still use the telephone and even face-to-face communication to collect money.




Read more:
From catfish to romance fraud, how to avoid getting caught in any online scam


Only call organisations you have researched to donate money and always ask for identification from those door-knocking for donations. If in doubt, don’t feel pressured to say yes and simply hang up or walk away.

In the longer term, we also need to be aware fraudsters take advantage of people when they are isolated, so it’s important to rally around family members, friends and others who are facing significant losses and feeling alone.

We need to better understand how fraud works and acknowledge anyone can be targeted. We also need to be able to talk about our vulnerabilities more openly in our homes and communities.

Fraud is an ongoing challenge globally. The current Australian bushfire crisis is simply the latest way for fraudsters to target our generosity and cause additional grief.The Conversation

Cassandra Cross, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Law, Cybersecurity Cooperative Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Celebrity concern about bushfires could do more harm than good. To help they need to put boots on the ground


Gabrielle Walters, The University of Queensland; Judith Mair, The University of Queensland, and Monica Chien, The University of Queensland

From Australian superstars such as Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Chris Hemsworth and Nicole Kidman to Hollywood heavyweights including Ellen DeGeneres and Bette Midler, a lengthening list of celebrities are helping to shine a spotlight on Australia’s bushfires.

Some have donated large sums of money and used social media to publicise their donations, encouraging fans to follow suit. Some have used their profile and platforms such as the Golden Globes awards to draw attention to the fires. Others are donating items for auction or appearing in charity events.




Read more:
How to donate to Australian bushfire relief: give money, watch for scams and think long term


For attracting attention and money to a cause, celebrity-driven attention is hard to beat. But there’s also a downside. If that interest is superficial and fleeting, it may actually hinder recovery efforts in disaster-ravaged regions.

Our research into disaster recovery efforts for Victoria’s Gippsland region after the deadly “Black Saturday” fires in 2009 suggests celebrities’ best contribution needs to be in the weeks and months to come – and requires them putting “boots on the ground”.

Negative implications

Studies confirm the influence of messages from celebrities, be it brand choice, political opinion or charitable giving.

It’s great that celebrities want to use their influence for good causes. Not all celebrity advocacy, though, should be applauded uncritically. One study has suggested it is less effective than sometimes supposed for development causes, and can simplify a complex issue to a single outcome – usually giving money. This fails to address how people can make an ongoing difference in other ways.

In terms of natural disasters, a very practical way to help communities recover is the resumption of tourism. Perceptions play a big part in this, and celebrities can play a big part in forming images. It’s why they have long featured in tourism campaigns, from Paul Hogan in the 1980s to Kylie Minogue and others in the humorously idealised imagery presented by Tourism Australia to Britons a few weeks ago.

Tourism Australia’s ‘Matesong’ campaign fronted by Kyle Minogue has now been suspended.

Now these images are being replaced by the message globally that Australia is “on fire, literally”, and that much of the country is an “apocalyptic nightmare”.

Tourism effects

Even if celebrities have the best of intentions, their emotional appeals and shared of images of red skies and smoke-filled cities along with heartbreaking images of devastation and loss can contribute to fans cancelling holidays plans, even while they’re donating to bushfire appeals.

There are already reports, for example, of tourists aborting plans for visits months away. The Australian Tourism Industry Council says cancelled bookings in towns unaffected by the bushfires are up to 60%. The Australian Tourism Export Council estimates the loss of international bookings will cost the nation at least A$4.5 billion in 2020, hurting regional areas the most.

US singer Rihanna shared this graphic representation of the Australian bushfires, which was widely mistaken to be an image taken by a satellite.
Twitter

It doesn’t help when misleading information is spread, as the American singer Rihanna inadvertently did when she shared an image on Twitter that exaggerated the size of the bushfires. This image suggested huge swathes of Australia were no-go zones.

Ellen Degeneres did something similar in telling her audience “nearly a third of their habitat has been destroyed”. This was an exaggerated misstatement of Australia’s environment minister saying a third of koala habitat in New South Wales had been destroyed.

Our research confirms the further someone is from a destination in crisis, the more likely they are to be confused about the location and think a greater area is affected.




Read more:
6 things to ask yourself before you share a bushfire map on social media


Fires in the Blue Mountains area of New South Wales, for example, were called “the “Sydney fires” elsewhere in Australia. Overseas they were referred to as the “Australian bushfires”, confusing domestic and international tourists.

Where celebrities can really help

So while celebrities might have the very best of motivations, their contribution in generating donations in the short term might be offset by the longer-term effect of amplifying the misconception that Australia is not safe for tourists.

Affected areas and number of casualties from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Gippsland covers all of Victoria east of Melbourne.
Nick Carson/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

This is demonstrated by past experience. After Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday fires, the the Gippsland region experienced a major tourism downturn, despite just 5% of the region being directly affected.

But celebrites can also use their mass-pull to aid tourism recovery.

Our research suggests their star power is unmatched as a means to encourage tourists back to regions recovering from disaster.

In the case of Gippsland, we surveyed 691 people with nine different advertising messages. Themes included solidarity, community readiness and even short-term discounts. We found celebrity endorsement made the greatest impression, with test subjects indicating it made them more likely to visit the region.

In the months after the Black Saturday bushfires, former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins and legendary cricketer Shane Warne visited affected towns. These highly publicised events sent the message these towns were ready to welcome visitors again.

So celebrities can definitely help in the coming weeks and months.

They can share positive stories about local communities’ resilience, and maybe even visit.

This is likely to do more for recovery efforts in the long term than helping to spruik for donations.The Conversation

Gabrielle Walters, Associate Professor, School of Business, The University of Queensland; Judith Mair, Associate professor, The University of Queensland, and Monica Chien, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We have already had countless bushfire inquiries. What good will it do to have another?



We know what has to be done. Now it’s time to implement previous recommendations.
CPL TRISTAN KENNEDY/FIRST JOINT PUBLIC AFFAIRS UNIT HANDOUT/EPA

Kevin Tolhurst, University of Melbourne

As our country battles the most extensive fires of our lifetime, there are increasing calls for a royal commission into the states and territories’ preparedness and the federal government’s response to the disaster.

A royal commission has coercive powers beyond a government inquiry, and the need for one implies there are facts and evidence that would otherwise be “hidden” to an inquiry or review.

Research I’ve recently conducted with other fire experts has concluded there have been 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, most of which are listed here. I have given expert evidence to at least seven of them, including the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

That is more than one inquiry every two years in the past 80 years. Do we need yet another?

Previous reviews that went nowhere

Some of the recommendations of the Stretton Royal Commission following the Black Friday fires of 1939 have still not been fully implemented.

Many of the recommendations of the subsequent 56 inquiries have not been fully implemented either, so it raises serious questions about whether another royal commission will offer anything new or compelling.




Read more:
Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face


Royal commissions are also expensive and time-consuming. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission had a budget of A$40 million and ran for about 18 months.

This cost did not include the very considerable time and resources committed by various government agencies, companies and individuals who prepared and presented evidence to the commission. When these costs are taken into account, I estimate the total cost of the commission to Victoria would have been much more.

This begs the question as to how money spent on a federal royal commission could be better used to deal with bushfire management across the country.

A comprehensive fire management plan already exists

In response to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and various other inquiries, fire managers from government agencies in all states and territories prepared a National Bushfire Management Policy Statement for Forests and Rangelands.

This policy statement was signed off by all COAG (Council of Australian Governments) members by early 2012 and published in 2014. As yet, there has been little action on implementing this policy.

The policy had a stated vision that

fire regimes are effectively managed to maintain and enhance the protection of human life and property, and the health, biodiversity, tourism, recreation and production benefits derived from Australia’s forests and rangelands.

Central to this vision is

the role fire plays in maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. Sustainable long-term solutions are needed to address the causes of increased bushfire risk.

To achieve the intent of this policy, 14 national goals were identified.

The first was to maintain appropriate fire regimes with the right combination of size, intensity, frequency and seasonality to properly sustain the ecosystems in Australia’s forests and rangelands.

Another goal was to promote Indigenous Australians’ knowledge of fire management. This recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape that are sustainable and create landscapes resilient to climate extremes.




Read more:
There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns


And a third goal was to create employment, workforce education and training in bushfire management. This recognised the importance of fire management as an integrated part of our lives.

These goals – along with the 11 others in the statement – still need to be developed into measurable outputs and outcomes, but they set a comprehensive and sustainable fire management strategy for the country.

This policy statement goes much further than just considering how to respond to a bushfire emergency, which seems to be the focus of the call for a new royal commission by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Morrison said Sunday he would take a proposal to establish a new royal commission into the bushfire disaster to Cabinet.
David Mariuz/AAP

A better way forward

Over the past 20 years or so, the tertiary education for land managers, such as professional foresters and rangers, has been reduced to the level of generic “environmental science”. This has largely been due to the politicisation of public land management.

Bushfire science is complex and fire management even more complex, so we need to have highly trained and qualified people managing our parks and forests. Instead, we typically have groups of individual specialists trying to collaborate without the strong leadership and direction such a task requires.




Read more:
Watching our politicians fumble through the bushfire crisis, I’m overwhelmed by déjà vu


We do not expect a physicist or chemist to build a bridge, even though they could provide great detail about the forces acting on it and the metallurgy of the structure. Instead, we employ engineers. Likewise, we should not expect botanists, zoologists, ecologists or environmental scientists to manage the natural landscape. That, however, is what is happening now.

What’s needed is a better national bushfire management strategy, not a commission into the response to the crisis.
STATE GOVERNMENT OF VICTORIA

The responsibility for land and fire management rests with each state and territory government. However, with support from the federal government and coordination through COAG, we should be able to develop an efficient and effective fire and land management program across Australia.

In his 1939 royal commission report, Judge Stretton observed of the Victorian Forests Commission chairman of the time, A.V. Galbraith,

if his Commission were placed beyond the reach of the sort of political authority to which he and his Department has for some time past been subjected, he would be of greater value to the State.

His meaning is clear: good fire and land management needs to be done with long-term perspective, not a short-term political focus.

Stretton also observed the need to have public support, because

without their approval and goodwill, there can be no real plan.

Our changing climate has put more pressure on our natural ecosystems and the weaknesses in our land and fire management are being ruthlessly exposed.

Rather than using time and resources on inquiry No. 58, we should instead commit to fully implement the recommendations of all the previous inquiries, reviews and royal commissions we have already held. Another royal commission will only reiterate what we have known for decades.The Conversation

Kevin Tolhurst, Hon. Assoc. Prof., Fire Ecology and Management, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Take care when examining the economic impact of fires. GDP doesn’t tell the full story



It is possible to calculate the impact impact of fires, but not using GDP.
Shutterstock/Andrew Brownbilll/AAP

Janine Dixon, Victoria University

Estimates of the economic damage caused by the bushfires are rolling in, some of them big and some unprecedented, as is the scale of the fires themselves.

These types of estimates will be refined and used to make – or break – the case for programs to limit the impact of similar disasters in the future. Some will be used to make a case for – or against – action on climate change.

But it’s important they not be done using the conventional measure of gross domestic product (GDP).

GDP measures everything produced in any given period.

It is a good enough measure of material welfare when used to measure the impact of a tourist event or a new mine or factory or something like the national broadband network, but it can be misleading – sometimes grossly misleading – when used to measure the economic impact of a catastrophe or natural disaster.




Read more:
Beyond GDP: are there better ways to measure well-being?


That’s because it measures the positives brought about the recovery from disasters but leaves out some of the negatives caused by the destruction.

For example:

  • building a new house has a positive impact on GDP, even if the old house was burnt down

  • a military evacuation has a positive impact on GDP, even though the circumstances that make it necessary are life-threatening and traumatic

  • bushfires stimulate GDP by creating more demand for health services, even as the victims suffer from smoke inhalation, burns or post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is possible to get at the full story

Economic modelling pioneered in Australia, and used to estimate the impact of terrorism and epidemics makes it possible to prepare measures of welfare that take account of the costs of disasters.

Among the immediate costs in the first months after a bushfire disaster would be:

  • the direct cost of fire-fighting

  • the cost of temporarily relocating residents

  • health costs, such as treatment of burns and respiratory illnesses

  • loss of work days associated with firefighting, injuries, illnesses, displacement and loss of life

  • a downgrading of consumer confidence

  • destruction of assets including homes, farms, businesses and natural resources and the associated disruption of economic activity including tourism, agriculture and housing

  • the cost of replacing or rebuilding these assets

Longer term impacts would derive from:

  • health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder leading to negative impacts on quality of life and labour supply

  • long term damage to ecosystems, including contamination of water, and extinction or severe loss of animal species including those necessary to agricultural production, such as bees

  • reputational damage leading to possible permanent downgrading of tourism activity in affected regions and in Australia more broadly

  • potential ongoing reluctance to invest in Australia

  • potential increases in cost of living in bushfire prone regions due to increases in insurance costs.

It involves going beyond GDP

The longer term impacts of disasters on a nation’s GDP are clearly negative, deriving from a decline in productive capacity (labour, capital and natural resources) which unambiguously detracts from economic welfare.

In the immediate aftermath, expenditure on reconstruction of homes and other assets can add to GDP, but the funding of these activities (whether direct or through insurance) adds to debt and can drag on household consumption, either immediately or in the future. A related measure, Gross National Income (GNI) takes this into account and is generally a better measure of economic welfare.

Bushfire-induced health expenditure stimulates both GDP and GNI but detracts from welfare.




Read more:
With costs approaching $100 billion, the fires are Australia’s costliest natural disaster


Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, can hardly be considered an improvement in standard of living.

To offset this inappropriate “good news”, it is possible to construct an index of leisure-adjusted GNI which takes into account the downgraded quality of leisure time.

As a starting point for such estimates, the prime minister’s department sets the statistical value of a year of life free of injury, disease and disability at A$182,000 (2014 dollars).

And it depends on where you are

Aggregated measures like GDP, GNI and leisure-adjusted GNI do not show the distribution of economic impact.

An event that strips a small amount from the incomes of everybody is different from one that decimates just a few regions, yet looks the same in a nationwide measure, so it is important that any economic analysis also looks at regional impacts.

The work is yet to be done, but it is safe to say that the conventional link between GDP and economic welfare (“more is better”) breaks down when assessing tragedies, particularly ones with profound regional impacts.

When campaigning to be US president Bobby Kennedy (John F Kennedy’s brother) said that GDP measures “everything… except that which makes life worthwhile”.

It’d be wise to bear that in mind when considering the policy response to the bushfires.




Read more:
Might the bushfire crisis be the turning point on climate politics Australian needs?


The Conversation


Janine Dixon, Economist at Centre of Policy Studies, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities



Rolling images and stories of bushfire devastation can take a toll.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.

You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?

We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.

Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.




Read more:
The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.

After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.

Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.

But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.

For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.

What is eco-anxiety?

Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.




Read more:
Rising eco-anxiety means we should address mental health alongside food security


The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.

Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.

We’re pretty resilient, but support helps

We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.

We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.

Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.




Read more:
Babies and toddlers might not know there’s a fire but disasters still take their toll


Become part of the solution

Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.

This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.

Seeking support from friends and family can help.
From shutterstock.com

Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.

Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.

Seeking professional help

Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.

Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.

If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.




Read more:
How to donate to Australian bushfire relief: give money, watch for scams and think long term


Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfire smoke is bad for your eyes, too. Here’s how you can protect them



When the hazardous particles found in bushfire smoke come into contact with our eyes, this can cause inflammation.
From shutterstock.com

Katrina Schmid, Queensland University of Technology and Isabelle Jalbert, UNSW

As we continue to contend with smoke haze in various parts of the country, many Australians may find themselves with watery, burning, irritated or red eyes.

Data from countries with consistently poor air quality suggest there could also be a risk of longer term effects to our eyes, particularly with prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke.

Although P2/N95 masks can protect us from inhaling harmful particles, unfortunately they can’t protect our eyes.

But there are certain things you can do to minimise irritation and the risk of any longer term effects.




Read more:
We know bushfire smoke affects our health, but the long-term consequences are hazy


Irritation in the short term

The eye’s surface is continuously exposed to the environment, except when our eyes are shut when we sleep.

Bushfire smoke contains dust, fumes (such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides), and tiny particles called PM10 and PM2.5.

When the smoke comes into contact with our eyes, the fumes and small particles dissolve into our tears and coat the eye’s surface. In some people, this can trigger inflammation, and therefore irritation.




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The presence of a marker called matrix metalloproteinase-9, or MMP-9, indicates the eye is inflamed.

During periods of poor air quality from bushfires in the United States, MMP-9 was present in the eyes of more people than it ordinarily would be.

Longer term risks

We know very little about how pollution from bushfire smoke might affect our eyes over the longer term, or what damage repeated or chronic exposure might do.

But we do know people who live in areas with high levels of air pollution, such as China, are three to four times more likely to develop dry eye.

Dry eye is a condition where a person doesn’t have enough tears or they are of such poor quality they don’t lubricate and nourish the eye. We need high quality tears to maintain the health of the front surface of the eye and provide clear vision.

For people who already have dry eyes – often older people – poor air quality may increase the damage. The smoke and pollution may cause intense stinging and a feeling of grittiness to the point they can barely open their eyes.

Avoid rubbing your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse.
From shutterstock.com

While dry eye is a result of damage to the surface of the eyes, it’s also possible pollutants entering the blood stream after we breathe them in could affect the blood supply to the eye. This in turn could damage the fine vessels within the eye itself.

Research has suggested high levels of air pollution in Taiwan may increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration, which could be an example of this.

We need more research into the long-term effects on our eyes of prolonged poor air quality, particularly from bushfire smoke. But what we do know suggests it’s possible bushfire smoke could be causing subtle damage to the eyes, even in people without any symptoms.




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What can you do to protect your eyes from the smoke?

  • the best option is to avoid going outside when air quality is at is worst, where possible
  • wearing sunglasses or glasses when outside if you need them might stop some of the dust carried in the wind from contacting the eye’s surface (but it won’t stop the tiny particles getting in)
  • avoid wearing contact lenses if possible.

Some tips if your eyes are irritated

  • flush your eyes as often as you can, with over-the-counter lubricant eye drops if you have some on hand. If not, use sterile saline solution or clean bottled water
  • if your eyes are itchy, flush them and then place a cool face washer over your closed lids
  • don’t rub your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse.

If your eyes are red and sore and these steps don’t help, it’s best to see an eye care professional.




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The Conversation


Katrina Schmid, Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology and Isabelle Jalbert, Associate Professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfire smoke is everywhere in our cities. Here’s exactly what you are inhaling


Smoke from recent bushfires has shrouded major Australian cities.
AAP/Erik Anderson

Gabriel da Silva, University of Melbourne

As bushfire smoke blankets large parts of Australia, it’s time to examine what this complex chemical mixture is made of, to better understand what it’s doing to both our bodies and the planet.

I research the chemical processes that create pollutants in flames, and what happens when they are released into the air we breathe.

Bushfires are not the only source of smoke we are exposed to in our everyday lives. We breathe smoke from cigarettes, wood-fired heaters, coal-fired power stations and vehicles.

But smoke stemming from the bushfires is accumulating over cities in concentrations rarely seen before in Australia, badly affecting cities including Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. This poses risks to public health and the environment. Read on to find out exactly what you’re breathing in.

A smoke-filled Canberra street on January 5 this year.
Lukas Coch/AAP

It’s largely water

First, there is a lot of water in bushfire smoke. When fire rips through a forest it burns off the water held in the trees, sending rolling clouds of steam up into the atmosphere.

Water might seem harmless, but it actually enables bushfires to form their own weather. Water vapour condenses on smoke particles and forms huge pyrocumulonimbus clouds. We saw these storms in the current fire crisis. They can complicate firefighting efforts by producing wind and lightning strikes but unfortunately rarely bring rain.




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These clouds also inject smoke high into the atmosphere from where it can circle the globe. We recently saw this when smoke from bushfires in Australia’s south-east drifted to New Zealand and then on to South America. Smoke lofted into the stratosphere influences the climate by blocking the movement of light and heat, and can even interfere with chemistry in the ozone layer.

A man wears a face mask to protect himself from bushfire smoke in Melbourne on Tuesday this week.
AAP/Erik Anderson

The climate effect

Smoke also contains gases, most notably carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO₂). Carbon dioxide is the end-product of combustion and is the most significant contributor to man-made global warming.

Forests sequester massive amounts of carbon as wood and other organic matter and much of this is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when burned.

Within about a year, these molecules could be anywhere in Earth’s atmosphere. CO₂ is so long-lived that many of these same molecules will remain circling the globe for hundreds of years.




Read more:
We know bushfire smoke affects our health, but the long-term consequences are hazy


This bushfire season, more than 10 million hectares of land has already burned. Estimates based on satellite data put the subsequent CO₂ release at 400 million tonnes. This is close to Australia’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions of around 500 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent.

Our planet’s climate emergency is already making Australia hotter and drier, with more frequent extreme weather events. The ensuing fires are in turn releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, forming a dangerous positive feedback loop.

A satellite image showing burned land and thick smoke over Kangaroo Island on January 9.
NASA Earth Observatory

The poisonous sibling

Whereas CO₂ presents a long-term threat to us all, its poisonous sibling carbon monoxide (CO) is a more immediate concern to those directly exposed to smoke. Carbon monoxide forms when combustion is interrupted on its way to make carbon dioxide.

At the high concentrations found in smoke, carbon monoxide can be deadly. It binds strongly to our haemoglobin – the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. At around 100 parts per million in air it can starve the human body of oxygen, asphyxiating its victims.

Carbon monoxide poisoning through smoke inhalation is a direct concern to firefighters and those sheltering from flames. Those fighting bushfires often work long shifts, sometimes over several weeks, with face masks that offer limited protection.


Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

But that’s not all

In addition to these two gases, smoke contains trace levels of many other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). In a bushfire, these are produced through the burning of sulfur and nitrogen in plants.

(These gases are also produced through burning fossil fuels. Over eons, ancient trees fossilise into oil and coal but retain some sulfur and nitrogen).




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Both SO₂ and NO₂ irritate our respiratory system. Atmospheric SO₂ is also problematic because over time it gets converted in air into sulfuric acid, forming acid rain. NO₂, on the other hand, breaks down in sunlight causing harmful ground-level ozone to form.

We are still learning about other dangerous trace gases in smoke. For instance, in the last decade we have come to realise that highly toxic isocyanic acid from smoke can be present in urban air at concentrations approaching those which are known to impact our health. Unfortunately, little research is available for Australian conditions.

Don’t forget the tiny particles

The final component of smoke we need to consider are the solid particles, or particulate matter (PM). This is both soot that builds up during combustion, and ash that breaks down from the remnants of burnt fuel.

What we see following a bushfire are mostly the larger particles, which reduce visibility and settle on cars and buildings. But the most dangerous component to our health are microscopic particles around one millionth of a metre in size.

These particles can penetrate deep into our lungs and make their way into our bloodstream, potentially impacting almost every bodily system.

Moreover, because of their size they are more likely to stay aloft in air and be transported away from their source.

Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres, known as PM2.5, settled on Canberra in recent weeks – a problem so severe on some days the city could lay claim to having the most polluted air in the world.

Tourists take selfies against a smoke-filled Sydney Harbour this month.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

Be prepared

Bushfire smoke is a complex chemical mixture that can affect humans in many ways. As fires become increasingly common across our continent, we must become more familiar with what we are breathing in.

Australia’s unique vulnerability to climate change, as has been evident this bushfire season, means we should also lead the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, Australians need to adapt. This means equipping our buildings with sensors and purifiers to respond to air pollution and educating the public on how to stay safe during an air quality emergency. It’s clear we must prepare for many smoke-filled summers to come.




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The Conversation


Gabriel da Silva, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.