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Better mental health is a journey

MENTAL health is a topic that is much more openly discussed now – both in the media and at gatherings. 

This can only be a good thing – to make us much more aware of the way our behaviour can affect others.

There are many reasons why a person’s mental health may decline - grief, draughts or floods, bushfires, busy lifestyles, work, financial, family demands, menopause and illness can have an accumulative effect on our mindset.

Often there are many of these issues at play, at once.

They can build over years and sometimes it just takes the proverbial ‘straw’ to break the camel’s back.

Depression and anxiety can be the results of these demands on our mental health.

What people are prepared to show on the outside does not always reflect what is going on ‘inside’. 

In fact, those effected by depression and anxiety often put on a ‘brave face’ to avoid scrutiny.

In the wake of more serious fire events in this area, I caught up Merrilyn Risk, an accredited Mental Health counsellor to get a clearer picture on what to look out for.

How do we recognise that we need some help? A person may have a gradual decline in their mental health – what signs should we be looking for to signify that a person needs help?

ONE of the first symptoms of stress is poor sleep, withdrawal from family and friendship groups, persistent thoughts of the event(s), poor appetite/diet, withdrawal from work, lack of motivation and concentration.

People often complain of poor memory, physical symptoms such as headache/stomach ache.

These symptoms are an understandable reaction to a catastrophic event as our bodies are telling us that something is out of kilter.

It is important to address these symptoms, or they may persist or increase.

It is important to treat yourself with compassion and listen to your symptoms.

Sometimes mental health decline is not gradual and can be triggered by a traumatic event. What steps can we make for an acute event?

WHERE people are faced with such traumatic events such as fire, flood and now the COVID-19 pandemic, initially this can be disconcerting for people.

It would assist the community to provide basic safety needs, (shelter, food security, safety, clothing as well as medical assistance) so that the community can be resilient and come together to look after one another.

Once the environment has been stabilised, the next stage is to provide everyday practical assistance such as accommodation, financial aid, when this occurs people may be more receptive to psychosocial support. 

If we identify someone we think could benefit from some counselling, how can we approach the subject, and once a person has acknowledged that they could use counselling, what is the first step to getting help?

The first step is to look at availability of community resources, being local medical clinics, community health or bush nursing centres.

A general practitioner is a valuable resource to identify mental health challenges and undertake appropriate assessments, and then make referrals to professional people, skilled at trauma counselling.

The Red Cross is also an option or people can access Department of Health, State and Federal, Medicare or Australian Association of Social Workers website.

Is counselling available under Medicare?

YES, Medicare funded programs including the newly introduced bushfires program, this will be initiated by your GP.

You can access the Australian Association of Social Workers website as it has information regarding these programs.

As a counsellor you are a trained professional, can you tell us about some of the techniques you use to improve a client’s mental health?

PEOPLE have common reactions to traumatic events like bushfires and floods, but we are also individuals and depending on our circumstances and history, that will determine on the type of counselling approaches that are proposed.

Once safety and physical needs have been met, strategies such as relaxation/meditation, sleep education, can assist in reducing what is called our fight and flight responses.

After the first three months following the event, we will have memories of the event which is understandable.

Once our sleep is back on track, this will have a calming effect and assist us in understanding our responses.

There will be techniques you can use with nightmares and flashbacks, this is part of the acute stress reaction, which is perfectly natural following a critical event.

Easily accessible strategies such as exercise and diet, staying away from simple carbohydrates like lollies and chocolate, minimising alcohol, and helping people to understand how their brain works in response to stress, as well as being able to talk to family and friends.

Techniques used may depend on how the person has responded to a critical event, as not all counselling approaches are applicable to all people.

Once housing and fire resistance is in place, counselling is introduced, it is important to provide the availability for people to attend individual or group critical incident stress management sessions, this will assist people to ensure an effective and timely resolution to their recovery. 

People spending time together as a community then realise, they can strengthen their resilience with each other.

A personal touch

FOR me, during periods of extreme fire situations, we worry about our families, homes, animals and community – but for those of us living in the path of oncoming fire, we also worry for members of our Country Fire Authority (CFA) and first responders. 

These people are members of our own families and community.

We know them personally.

The threat to life is very real.

I have spoken to people here who have lived through the Ash Wednesday fires and say all the emotional dread just comes flooding back when there is smoke in the air – so new fire events can become overwhelming.

If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that the benefits of counselling can be enormous.

First, you can learn about why your brain is responding the way it does.

You can learn about anxiety triggers, how to read and acknowledge them and learn methods to regain control. 

One of the most powerful things is to ‘cut yourself some slack’ and learn how and why this mindset developed.

I remember saying to my counsellor that “I just want my old life back” to which she replied – “but do you really? Isn’t that what got you into this position in the first place?” 

My life was too busy – I was extremely overloaded - so I have made some changes to my life and I say “no” more often and I am beginning to make a little time for myself.

My husband always said that the severity of the garden pruning directly reflected the amount of stress I was under at the time.

I used to hit tennis balls but now it’s the garden.

The hardest thing is to put your hand up – but the best thing is, that once that is done – then you have already taken the first step to recovery. 

My only regret – I should have done it earlier.

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