Bushfire events negatively impact children’s mental health research finds
Bushfire events have a negative impact on children’s mental health, and research is urgently needed to identify evidence-based interventions and support, a literature review published late December 2020 has found.
Published in the Medical Journal of Australia’s (MJA) special supplement on Evidence Gaps in Rural Research, the findings show an increased risk of poorer mental health outcomes for children as a result of bushfires.
Commissioned by the Spinifex Network and co-authored by Charles Sturt University and Australian children’s charity Royal Far West, “The Impact of Bushfire on the Wellbeing of Children Living in Rural and Remote Australia: A Rapid Review” investigated both the dynamics associated with mental health and development of children impacted by bushfire, and which interventions lead to better outcomes for these children.
“Children particularly at risk are those from more vulnerable backgrounds who may have other compounding factors, limiting their ability to overcome bushfire trauma,” co-author Associate Professor Michael Curtin said.
Although several studies investigated the short and long-term impact of exposure to bushfire on children and adolescents, there were no studies found that highlighted effective interventions to reduce the risk of the impact of bushfire.
Royal Far West’s Executive Director, Business, People and Culture Jacqui Emery said the lack of evidence for interventions to help children recover was a serious concern given the likelihood of more bushfires in Australia.
“It is essential that we are able to help children recover as a priority, based on the best evidence, to ensure any future outcomes as a result of bushfire are better managed,” Ms Emery said.
Key findings from the literature review include:
- Children exposed to bushfire reported higher levels of mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety compared with those not exposed to fire, especially in the short to medium term.
- The impact of bushfire exposure may not be apparent in the short term but may become more pronounced later in life. Exposure to trauma in children may only be noticed at later stages of development when higher order cognitive abilities and skills emerge.
- There is no (bushfire specific) evidence identified that supports intervention to improve the outcomes for this population, though research into other disasters indicates there are sound foundations to consider for successful approaches.
Given the likely increase in bushfire events in Australia, research into effective interventions should be a priority, authors note.
Ms Emery said the literature review will contribute to better understanding the short, medium and long-term impact of bushfire on children, and the development of evidence-based interventions and policy to support children in the bush, where most bushfires occur, and where service access is already a significant challenge.
“The findings highlight the importance of evaluating interventions that aim to reduce the risk of long-term negative impact of the bushfire on their wellbeing, such as the Bushfire Recovery Program we are undertaking with UNICEF Australia, to determine its efficacy and impact,” she added.
To learn more about the Bushfire Recovery Program, please see here.