COVID recovery tips from the disaster relief coalface

Kris O'Brien is Statewide Coordinator of Mental Health Victoria’s Lived Experience Peer Cadet Program. He was recently awarded a National Emergency Medal for his work for Disaster Relief Australia during the Black Summer bushfire season.

In this interview published by Mental Health Victoria he reflects on the mental health impacts of natural disasters and the lessons that can be applied to our recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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 free webinar Learning from adversity on 30 November 2021. Register now