Flood-ravaged communities tackle mental illness

The January floods were an event few in the Lockyer Valley will forget, but as the community rebuilds, serious, long-term effects such as mental illnesses are emerging among flood survivors.

[media-credit name=”Rebekah Mulholland, Linden Morris, Tim Ferrier ” align=”alignleft” width=”590″]Lockyer Valley Mayor Steve Jones,Senior Human and Social Recovery Officer Sue Hewitt, and Lockyer Valley Deputy Mayor Graham Moon[/media-credit]

Lockyer Valley Mayor Steve Jones, Senior Human and Social Recovery Officer Sue Hewitt, and Lockyer Valley Deputy Mayor Graham Moon at recent Lockyer Valley Wellbeing Expo

On January 10 this year, as residents of the Lockyer Valley went about their daily routines, one of Australia’s worst flash floods hit hard and fast causing mass destruction and devastation.

It was a day few in the valley will forget, but as the community rebuilds, serious,  long-term effects such as mental illnesses are emerging among flood survivors. Local councils and community groups are working to tackle post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

After many consecutive days of rain in the Toowoomba area, a final massive downpour created what can only be described as a wall of water, which swept through the main street, washing away everything in its path.

The flood swiftly moved through Murphy’s Creek and down into the Lockyer Valley, where 19 lives were lost and small towns like Grantham were almost completely destroyed.

Today, residents from Murhpy’s Creek, Withcott, Grantham, Laidley and Forest Hill are still dealing with the loss of family members, homes, businesses, crops and livelihoods.

Such a devastating event can have serious consequences, including mental illness.

Queensland Health describes PTSD as “a condition people develop after they have been exposed to a distressing experience”. Symptoms include distressing memories and dreams, efforts to avoid the reminders, a negative outlook, lack of sleep, and self-destructive behaviour.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), recognises PTSD as an illness with very strict guidelines for diagnosis.

This makes the recording of PTSD cases very difficult within a community like the Lockyer Valley, with many survivors showing only a few symptoms needed for diagnosis.

However, Denny Brain, from the government run Community Recovery Referral and Information Centre (CRRIC), believes someone does not need to be diagnosed with PTSD for them to be suffering of flood-related depression in some way.

“I have certainly come across many who’ve been showing the symptoms… of post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Mr Brain said.

Lockyer Valley councilor and deputy mayor Graham Moon, who is also heavily involved with the council run Human and Social Recovery Committee, believes the council also recognises the prevalence of PTSD and flood-related depression within the affected community

“It is an area that we are concerned about,” Cr Moon said.

Farm manger Eddie Sloan is one sufferer. As a result of the January downpour he was isolated for a week at a property near Dalby.

Although he had been previously diagnosed with depression before the floods hit, Mr Sloan believes the disaster delivered a heightened sense of anxiety, fear and sadness.

“That brought up a lot of old feelings, emotions that I sort of hadn’t dealt with or hadn’t experienced for a couple of years… being mainly some depression symptoms and that sort of thing,” said Mr Sloan.

“I was able to work through them as I’ve been trained, had good therapy… over a period of time leading up to that.”

Members from both the Lockyer Valley Council and CRRIC believe they are doing their absolute best to help depression sufferers like Mr Sloan.

The local council is constantly commended on their infrastructure work, however Cr Moon says the human and social sector of the Lockyer Valley Council meets twice as often as infrastructure sectors.

“Those sub-committees have now gone out to meeting every month … or even maybe a bit longer … because of our concern about this human and social area we still meet every fortnight,” Cr Moon said.

CRRIC is based in several areas throughout the flood affected area and their sole purpose is to assist flood survivors with getting the help needed to overcome their mental struggles.

“[In Toowoomba] it’s really about people coming in for Department of Communities grants but in the CRRICs down in the Lockyer, [it’s about] Red Cross and Lifeline … if people are distressed and need to speak to someone they can speak to Lifeline,” said Michelle Leadbetter from the government run CRRIC.

To support the work CRRIC is doing, the local council have deployed several councilors and volunteers across the flood stricken area, something Cr Tanya Milligan, head of the HSRC, is very pleased with.

“For me it’s about … being positive. And it is about being optimistic, so … I don’t know that it’s just all for show,” said Cr Milligan.

Cr Moon said the community was very supportive.

Another initiative by the Lockyer Valley Council was the Well Being Expo, held on October 15, 2011. The Expo was set up to promote positive thought, healthy lifestyle choices, community spirit and highlight the support available for community members.

“It was an initiative out of the human and social and with the aim specifically not to be disaster related. We wanted anyone from the community … to be able to just turn up and take something home with them,” Cr Milligan said.

Although much is getting done, Cr Moon believes the move of residents to Upper Grantham will be the most positive step forward for those in the community.

“I think the community is very appreciative of what we’ve done … but in the main people are very understanding and they accept the fact that the rectification of the problems that we have experienced will probably take maybe even two and a half maybe even three years,” Cr Moon said.

As far as getting back to normality, Cr Milligan reiterates the fact normal will be nothing like it used to be.

“I think we will never be … it will never go back the way it was. I mean in the early days we spoke about … back to the way it used to be, but the reality of it is that we’ll never go back, it will never go back to the way it was,” said Cr Milligan.

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Picture credit: Annabelle Brayley cc