Posted: 27 Feb. 2020 5 min. read

The ring of fire: Exploring men and women’s psychological outcomes and coping strategies in communities affected by bushfires

Bushfires have ravaged Australia over the summer of 2019/2020, with devastating consequences. The economic impact, estimated to surpass the record of $4.4b set by the 2009 Black Saturday blazes according to Moody’s Analytics, the loss of human life and erosion of native wildlife, damage and destruction of property, is likely to have long term impacts on affected individuals and communities. With most fires now extinguished and the areas given safety clearances, the recovery process has begun. Based on past experiences, often recovery efforts are focused on physical repairs such as homes and animal habitats, while psychological recovery efforts can be overlooked.

In 2013, bushfires engulfed parts of the Blue Mountains region in New South Wales, Australia, resulting in the destruction of approximately 200 properties and damage to an additional 132 properties in the Blue Mountains and surrounding areas. “Following these bushfires, Professor Cavanagh, Wilson and Caputi (University of Wollongong) and Professor Kavanagh (Queensland University of Technology) investigated differences in the prevalence and predictors of men and women’s psychological outcomes and coping mechanisms”. The findings support and build upon previous research regarding differences between the psychological impacts experienced by men compared to women. In particular, they reveal that the extent to which individuals felt connected to the community and their perceived bond with others was the most prevalent source of support reported. 

This demonstrates the significant role of communities in rebuilding the communities themselves and the individuals that exist within them. It also suggests a role is open to employers to provide more support for their employees who have survived a bushfire (or similar crisis) and the nuanced ways in which trauma might manifest itself for men and women and the care needed.

Aim

The study aimed to identify the predictors and prevalence of psychological outcomes for men and women after the 2013 Blue Mountains bushfires. The study also sought to identify the different coping strategies men and women used to deal with the psychological impact.

Method

A total of 189 (56 male and 133 female) participated in the study. Participants completed a 20-minute perception-based survey (online or paper-and-pencil) with open and close ended questions. 

The following variables were assessed by asking participants

  • Their perceived level of risk for their own safety or family/friends on a 5-point Likert scale.
  • Whether their property was damaged or destroyed.
  • Sources of support using an adapted version of the General Help-Seeking Questionnaire (GHSQ).
  • Their perceptions of community cohesion using an adapted version of the Neighborhood Cohesion Scale (NCS); and
  • Whether they had previously experienced any mental health problem prior to the bushfires.

Open-ended questions were used to garner perceptions of 

  • What the most helpful and supporting interventions and coping strategies were; 
  • What were the most distressing situations experienced; and
  • If any differences between gender were noticed.

The probable psychological outcomes assessed by the study were:

  • Psychological distress with the 21-item Depression Anxiety and Stress Scales (DASS-21) scored from 0 to 3 (Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995).
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with an abbreviated version of the PTSD Checklist (PCL) (Bliese et al., 2008).
  • Alcohol use with the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT-C) (Bush, Kivlahan, McDonell, Fihn & Bradley, 1998).

Findings

By way of background to the study’s findings regarding coping strategies and support, the researchers found that approximately 50% of participants had experienced high to extreme risk for their own or their family/friends’ safety and 20% of participants experienced major property damage.

1. Gender differences:

  • Women were more likely to report a significantly higher level of safety risk (c2 (1) = 4.34, p < .05) and more likely to seek support from a family member or mental health professional then men.

2. Prevalence and predictors of probable psychological outcomes:

  • Psychological distress: 20% of participants reported elevated levels of psychological distress (i.e. depression, anxiety or stress). Perceptions of lower community cohesion were often a predictor of psychological distress.
  • Probable PTSD: women and severity of property damage were two variables that significantly predicted probable PTSD. Further, women, in comparison to men, showed more prevalence to report probable PTSD. 
  • Heavy drinking: men, were more likely than women, to report heavy drinking as a psychological outcome of the bushfire event.
  • Mental health problems prior to fires: 30% of participants reported pre-existing mental health problems, rendering them more vulnerable than those who did not have prior mental health problems to psychological distress and probable PTSD. 

3. Recovery and support:  perceptions of community belonging, cohesion and support played a sizeable role in participants’ physical and psychological bushfire recovery. The table below highlights the key experiences, coping strategies and perceived differences between men and women’s experiences of the bushfire.

Implications

The differences between men and women and the likelihood of PTSD and heavy alcohol consumption reported in this study are aligned with existing data (Wittchen et al. 2011) where it has been suggested that men and women use different strategies to regulate their emotions (Forbes et al. 2015). Whilst men have reported applying distraction and avoidance behaviors, women are more prone to ruminating (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2012). It has been hypothesized that different social roles and gender norms are likely to influence these responses (Addis, 2008).

The social support provided from fire-specific organisations was reported as very valuable as it facilitated the sharing of information, stories and resources allowing the recovery of the community identity faster. Notably the research did not explore support provided by survivors’ employers, but the findings imply an opportunity for employers to also provide support for bushfire affected employees. Beyond that, this research suggests that when such support is provided it should anticipate: psychological assistance as well as material assistance, and ii) that men and women may adopt different emotional copying strategies.

To read this article see:  https://www.psychology.org.au/getmedia/3559ba7a-be82-40be-8069-fea4822e77be/Cavanagh-et-al-ACP-Vol-29-2-2018.pdf

Editorial Note: Coe to our value of taking care of each other, Deloitte Australia has committed to supporting our employees and communities affected by the Australian bushfires through a number of initiatives including: 

  • Access to a comprehensive Partner and Employee Assitance Program for all Partners, people and their family members. This program is available all year and was recently flagged in firm-wide communication to remind our people of the support available to them particularly during the national bushfire crisis and other extreme weather event
  • Extending paid volunteer leave to include firefighters and defence reservists
  • Updating our volunteer leave policy to allow our people to use their volunteer leave to support bushfire affected communities
  • Encouraging staff to use Deloitte Flex (internal flexible working arrangements) to volunteer and support bushfire relief efforts 
  • Holding dollar-matching appeals and fundraising events
  • Allocating funds to reputable organisations with the best reach to those affected 
  • Committing 80% of the remaining FY19 Pro Bono budget to bushfire relief, recovery and rebuild projects; and
  • Committing to the development of a longer-term strategy to provide support to affected communities in the most effective and impactful way.

More about the author

Maria Delgado

Maria Delgado

Senior Analyst, Transaction Services, M&A, FA

Maria is a senior analyst within Deloitte’s Financial Advisory, Merger & Acquisition practice, with an international background in audit mainly for international construction and engineering companies such as UGL (CIMIC Group) or Ferrovial. With a passion for leadership, mindfulness and mind-related topics, she is currently enrolled in an online Post Graduate Diploma in Applied Neuroscience in King’s College of London.