Researchers examine community mental health responses to bushfires, COVID-19

Shoalhaven study will inform future health system responses to disasters

Researchers examine community mental health responses to bushfires, COVID-19

A University of Wollongong-led study into community-based mental health strategies in response to the bushfire crisis and COVID-19 pandemic has won $426,000 in funding from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

Waminda South Coast Women’s Health and Welfare Aboriginal Corporation (Waminda), Milton Ulladulla Hospital and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District are partners in the research.

The project, “Narratives of Recovery – Practices supporting community mental health and wellbeing post bush fires and COVID 19”, will investigate approaches adopted by Waminda and the Milton Ulladulla Hospital to support mental well-being, healing and recovery for their bushfire affected communities when COVID-19 restrictions came into force.

The research team will describe mental health and wellbeing interventions adopted by these organisations and their communities, and examine the experiences of both those delivering and those receiving them. They will also evaluate whether and how the interventions enhanced mental wellbeing and healing and ameliorated the impacts of the pandemic.

The research addresses a knowledge gap of how a local health district (LHD) and an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (ACCHO) design and deliver interventions to address complex health and social issues in the context of a combined environmental and public health crisis.

Project leader Associate-Professor Lynne Keevers from UOW’s School of Health and Society said the results of the study would inform future health-system responses to COVID-19 and other disasters.

“Because of COVID-19 and other crises such as bushfire, some Australian rural and regional communities have implemented their own strategies to address existing and emerging mental health problems among vulnerable groups,” Professor Keevers said.

“Local responses to immediate community need are grounded in contextual knowledge and harness existing resources rather than relying on mainstream, system-wide responses.

“Exploring collective stories from participating health services will identify practices and interventions that enhance healing, recovery and well-being for service recipients, health staff, their communities and Country.”

Study outcomes will include recommendations for culturally safe and place-based approaches to enhancing mental health supports that will be able to be scaled-up and adapted by other rural and regional locations in response to pandemic conditions or other disasters.

“This study aims to articulate practices that assist communities regain their sense of belonging, hope for the future, control over their lives and their capacities to care for and to be cared for by Country,” Professor Keevers said.

“We will also investigate how practices enacted with health staff, service participants and communities work together to create holistic models of care that mitigate the mental health consequences of cumulative trauma.”

Photo caption: (left to right) Lynne Dooley (Waminda), Krissie Falzon (Waminda), Stuart Emslie (Milton Ulladulla Hospital), Maria Mackay (University of Wollongong), Lynne Keevers (University of Wollongong), Padmini Pai (Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District), and Ruth Everingham (MIlton Ulladulla Hospital). Picture: Paul Jones, UOW

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