Recovery and resilience after disaster

Kris responds to the storm damage in victorian regional communities during the pandemic.
Kris responds to the storm damage in victorian regional communities during the pandemic.

People respond to disasters in many varied ways. Kris O’Brien, Statewide Coordinator of Mental Health Victoria’s Lived Experience Peer Cadet Program, has witnessed this firsthand.

In the midst of the devastating Black Summer bushfire season, he was working for Disaster Relief Australia, supporting operations and providing community outreach. He helped set up recovery efforts nationally and spent time on the ground in the Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island and more.

Importantly, he brought a specific mental health and lived experience focus to these operations.

“I worked with people who had lost everything,” he recalls.

“I worked with people who had experienced significant loss themselves, but instead of sitting down and dwelling on it, they actively started supporting their community.” Still others were “reeling from what they had experienced, were not even being able to sit down and process it”.

His work in these communities was broad-ranging, face-to-face, and hands-on. Last week he was awarded a National Emergency Medal in recognition of his service during this period. But for Kris, it’s the human encounters that resonate louder than any plaudits ever could.

“It's quite confronting,” he admits. “But it's also an opportunity for us to start to link in with services and supports that might be relevant and contribute to recovery and resilience.”

Whatever a person’s reactions to the hardship that had befallen them, the aim was to address specific needs — big or small, from the emotional to the practical — and then “support meaningful steps towards recovery and resilience in in the future”.

[Pictured: Kris responds to the storm damage in Victorian regional communities during the pandemic.]

 

From war zone to disaster zone

For Kris there is a direct through-line from the bushfire ravaged Adelaide Hills to the Uruzgan Province of Afghanistan.

From 2010 to 2014 he was a full-time infantry soldier with the Australian Army. He was part of a peace-keeping deployment to Timor Leste during the elections of 2012. Later, he was a member of the Other Government Agencies Platoon on deployment in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Slipper.

“We worked with different groups supporting the infrastructure, relationships and development of the Uruzgan Province of Afghanistan,” Kris explains.

“We provided a security element for individuals that were going out and engaging with different parts of the community … whether that was working in medical centres or attending meetings with tribal leaders or attending openings or engineering site inspections.

“My deployments were very humanitarian focused,” Kris reflects. “I was lucky to be able to see what actually helped the communities on the ground.”

Like many veterans, Kris found reintegration post-military life a challenge. The prospect of integrating back into everyday civilian life was both daunting and difficult.

“I'm at that time 23, 24 years old,” he says. “I had experience with mentoring and leading teams in combat zones. But I couldn't find a job that was meaningful to me. I didn't know how to express myself in a resume, or who I was outside of the military.

“I bounced around a few different jobs and ended up working with a tech start-up … building technology and education programs to support veterans and their families into civilian industry. I was naively of the perspective that the only thing you need to successfully reintegrate was a job.

“But I started to recognise we were supporting individuals into quite decently paid roles that on the surface should have been the ideal … but they weren’t happy, they were still struggling. They didn’t feel like they were utilising their skill set or were able to express themselves or be understood.”

Kris started digging deeper into psychology and mental health research. He also explored methods of reintegration that were meaningful and that utilised veterans’ unique skills and experiences.

These explorations led him to being employed by Open Arms Veterans and Families Counselling as a community and peer advisor.

They also brought him to Team Rubicon Australia (now Disaster Relief Australia), a not-for-profit that “unites first responders, veterans and civilians to rapidly deploy into disaster relief teams in Australia and around the world in the wake of natural disasters”.

Initially he was a long-term volunteer. But then Black Summer struck.

“Disaster Relief Australia is focused on community recovery and resilience,” says Kris. “We would be actively on the ground doing chain saw work to enable mobility for logistics vehicles, or doing whatever we could from cleaning up to contributing to recovery plans.”

It was about performing “anything that helped”, says Kris, to meet any defined need.

“When the 2019 bushfires happened I looked at the communities and said, there's a defined need for mental health supports and services,” says Kris. Disaster Relief Australia agreed and put in a formal request to Open Arms to second Kris into their bushfire recovery operations.

“I was on the ground supporting operations in any way that was viable,” he says, “whether that was in leadership, or as a team member on the ground.

“If there were individuals experiencing distress, and if it was appropriate, I was taking on a wellbeing lived experience approach and supporting them with the purpose of bringing humanity back into a situation that was inherently lacking it.

“When a disaster happens, it's a dehumanising and distressing experience. Disasters don’t discriminate. People go into shock. You're essentially in survival mode.”

 

Resilience and recovery: From Black Summer to COVID-19

Those effects can be long-lasting. For many of the survivors of Black Summer, they’re exacerbated by the other disaster that has rolled across the planet over the past two years: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are communities that are still recovering that have essentially been perpetuated in their recovery cycle,” says Kris, “due to the fact no service and supports are able to get out to them.”

“Experiencing a pandemic is a really interesting situation,” Kris reflects. “It’s been a time when our normal coping mechanisms, which could have been going to the gym, going for a walk, catching up with friends and family, going for dinners, haven’t been available to us.

“As a result, we've seen significant increases in mental health presentations. We've seen increased presentations of people experiencing anxiety or depression.”

As much as a pandemic might, on its face, be different from a bushfire, there are similar principles that can apply in terms of resilience and recovery.

“One of the learnings from my experiences working in disasters is that nothing is linear,” says Kris. He points out that even if things like walks and dinners with friends are not conscious strategies for maintaining mental health, once you take them away the impact can be huge.

“One of the most important things is simply to be aware that life changed significantly,” says Kris. “The coping mechanisms or normal experiences you had prior to the pandemic weren't there.”

On the other hand: “We’re coming out of the pandemic now, and there's a huge expectation life is going to get back to exactly how it was before. That's easier said than done. Everyone's been isolated and dealing with the pandemic in their own ways.

“Bringing it back slowly is really important. It's normal to experience social anxiety if you haven't been outside your house in eight to 12 months. It's normal to be a bit nervous about different things. Normalising that and being able to have the conversations is extremely important.”

Whether recovering from a bushfire or from a pandemic, there’s one piece of advice Kris can’t stress enough: Be kind to yourself.

“Listen to yourself and find what works for you. Maybe you don't have to go to that party, or do that thing you think you should. Put yourself first and know what you’re comfortable with.

“Things take time. Speak to anyone that talks about mental health recovery: You don't just wake up one day and everything is back to normal. It's something you've experienced that you've got to really have awareness of and work through to move forward.”

Kris O’Brien will speak more about disasters, recovery and hope at our upcoming webinar Learning from adversity on 30 November 2021.