Black Saturday trauma 'will scar a generation'

23:22, Feb 06 2014
Black Saturday
BROKEN: A firefighter takes a moment amid the Black Saturday chaos. Now a report says the trauma from the deadly fires could scar a generation of young people.

The Victorian government is being warned it faces a generation of psychologically damaged young people that were victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Residents from areas decimated in the fires told AAP ahead of this week's fifth anniversary that youths ranging from those that were doing year 12 in 2009 to children that were babies at the time have been severely adversely affected.

The fires caused the deaths of 173 people around Victoria on February 7, 2009.

A report presented to government last year warned of widespread disengagement and absenteeism from schools, disengagement at home and children with academic learning gaps linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The report's co-author Kinglake mother Lesley Bebbington said she helped collect data from local schools, kindergartens and the community at the urging of deputy premier Peter Ryan after he was told of the issues.

That prompted a temporary funding extension to extra youth counselling services in Kinglake, but funding for a youth group Bebbington started up ended and other specialist services are being stripped back to normal.

Bebbington said one secondary school principal had warned her the problems with the region were so serious that if they did not raise money to help children now, it would instead end up being spent later on juvenile justice.

"I could give you the names of young kids struggling with issues, alcohol and drugs who have fallen through the cracks and I can tell you the catalyst came from the fires," said Bebbington, who lost her house and whose own daughter suffered serious emotional problems related to the fires.

"It was hard to stick a kid on a bus driving past nothing every day, black as far as you can see and houses where friends died.

"Some of these kids were babes in arms at the time of the fires: non-verbal, unable to communicate but severely impacted and the information from schools and kindergartens is consistent with emotional attachment disorder."

Kinglake has been shaken by suicides of both older and younger people - a spate in 2012 particularly - amid increases in marriage breakdowns, alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence documented by Women's Health Goulburn North East.

Clinical psychologist Rob Gordon, who has worked closely with survivors, said parents in fire-affected areas had been pre-occupied by urgent problems during the years when their children should have been their focus.

"The effects on the development of children and young people are becoming evident," Professor Gordon told AAP.

He says the trauma does not ruin lives but it does change and alter the direction of them, which can be positive but is something people of all ages should be aware of and accept.

Trauma recovery can take 10 years and now five years into that process, people had finished material requirements and were noticing the negative impacts on their identity, Prof Gordon said.

He said that rather than a shortage of services as some claimed, the problem was that many of the towns had a culture of not seeking professional help, when many people that were well-functioning before the fires now needed it.

The stresses were even believed to be linked to increased diagnoses of cancer and other health problems, he said.

Towns that were tight-knit and involved with each other - such as Strathewen - did better than those that were less so such as Flowerdale and Kinglake, who should work on those relationships, he said.

A spokesman for deputy premier Peter Ryan said that through the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund the Victorian government provided access to counselling for fire-affected people, with specialist individual counselling, outreach services and an online counselling service for young people available free of charge.

A public report on how the recovery is going after five years is due this month.