Media coverage of the Victorian bushfires could cause more harm to children, even if the weren’t directly affected by the disaster.
Associate Professor Brett McDermott, a board director for the national depression initiative beyondblue, said that repeated images of the fires, which have so far killed 181 people in regional Victoria, were also likely to prolong the psychological impacts of the disaster.
Professor McDermott, an expert in emotional trauma in children following large scale disasters, has conducted research into the impact of disasters on children’s mental health following the Sydney bushfires in 1994, the Canberra bushfires in 2003 and Cyclone Larry in 2006.
“Younger children might not realise that the bushfire is over if they keep seeing images of it for several weeks. They might feel people are losing their lives over a period of weeks and the fires have not been put out yet,” Professor McDermott said.
“We know from our experience of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the September 11 terrorist attacks that some people, especially younger children, were traumatised by media images of the frightening event, especially when the media coverage is so intense.
“A very young child can have trouble processing the information and can get traumatised. Older adolescents can get very strong feelings of empathy and grief watching and seeing what’s happened to other families and children.”
Professor McDermott said survivors were likely to feel intense guilt over the coming weeks, particularly if they lost a loved one.
“There’s also something called survivor guilt where someone may feel if they had been there to help, then a friend may be alive, may not have been burnt or their house may have remained intact. So some adolescents can feel very guilty that they didn’t help, even if they weren’t there.”
For more information on depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental health disorders call the beyondblue info line on 1300 22 4636 or log onto www.beyondblue.org.au.