How did Australian communities survive the stress of the past few years?

By Melissa Coade

June 8, 2022

Shane Fitzsimmons (l) and Christine Morgan (r) speak at the Comcare National Conference. (The Mandarin)

Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on Australian society means remembering the shared and unique experiences of the past four years – but it’s tempting to want to forget.

According to National Mental Health Commission boss Christine Morgan, stigma continues to prevent Australians from seeking support for the harrowing experiences of the past few years. Those years were characterised by highly elevated levels of psychological distress, depression, anxiety and fear. But, Morgan says, getting support has also become more normalised. 

“There’s probably not one person living in Australia who hasn’t felt an impact on how they’re feeling, on how they feel they’re coping, on how they’re reacting to life, on our mental health as a result of [the pandemic],” Morgan said of the fatigue that continues to interrupt people today. 

“You couple that with all of the natural calamities that were happening — we just did not even have that base of resilience to come from. A lot of 2021 was about ‘How can we actually just keep ourselves going? How can we actually get through this?’.”

The national suicide advisor to the prime minister went on to reflect on the contradiction of 2019 and 2020, which saw society yearning to lean into its communities and rally around each other. But the pandemic had other plans that would see separation enforced and human outreach in the ordinary way restricted.

“We were suddenly told, ‘Stay away, close the doors, lock yourself down, be frightened of each other’ and I think that was a very, very strong message that came through 2019-2020,” Morgan said.

“In the mental health world, we were so concerned by it that when this concept of social distancing started, we said ‘Please, can we talk about physical distancing with social connection?’, and it was a very strong counter-movement that we tried to push.”

Morgan made her comments at the Comcare National Conference in Canberra on Tuesday. 

Joining her on the panel was Resilience NSW commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who is also an emergency management deputy secretary for the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. Fitzsimmons’ appointment to his current role occurred at the start of the pandemic in May 2020. He was previously the state’s rural fire commissioner.  

The ex-fire chief reflected on the deadly and unprecedented fires of 2019-20. He said the magnitude of the fire in terms of scale, devastation, destruction, and the displacement of people were unlike anything he had ever known. 

“We’ve never seen a fire season like it in the state’s history,” Fitzsimmons said of 160 consecutive days of high-intensity burning and 200 days of declared bushfire emergencies that become known as the Black Summer fires

“There were just under 2,500 homes that were lost, 26 lives lost, including seven firefighters. The toll was enormous,” he said.

Fitzsimmons himself chooses not to use the Black Summer bushfire headline because he believes it does a disservice to the communities who continued to be impacted and devastated during spring and winter.

“We were averaging more than 1,000 fires a month during winter up in northern New South Wales and it spread from the Queensland border ultimately to the Victorian border; five and a half million hectares consumed across our forested country,” Fitzsimmons said. 

“There is no precedent — our most intense fire seasons were typically two-to-three weeks, and then we get a reprieve in weather, and then you go through another cycle.

“Fire behaviour like we’ve never seen before, exceeding convention, at 2, 3 and 4 [o’clock] in the morning, not at 2, 3 and 4 in the afternoon,” he said. 

In evaluating the collective trauma Australia has suffered these past few years, Fitzsimmons pointed to the worst drought in the centuries preceding it. This was broken by extreme weather, with storms and flooding this year, which inundated a ‘denuded’ landscape from drought and fire, he said. Then there was the mice plague

“A lot of people didn’t realise, but by the time we also hit the end of 2021, in New South Wales, we had 75 local government areas declared natural disasters from storms and floods,” Fitzsimmons said. 

“We’ve all had extraordinary challenges as a result of COVID. It’s been a very difficult period.”


Mental health in the APS is not a problem to be fixed

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