RFW needs assessment shows significant mental health impact of floods on children
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > RFW needs assessment shows significant mental health impact of floods on children

RFW needs assessment shows significant mental health impact of floods on children

by Freya Lucas

March 10, 2023

Following the catastrophic floods in the NSW northern rivers and southeast Queensland a year ago, Royal Far West (RFW) and UNICEF Australia undertook a joint community consultation and needs assessment to help identify, provide, and advocate for the needs of children in these regions which found there has been a significant impact to the mental health and long-term recovery for children affected by the event. 


The report, Flood Response and Recovery Children’s Needs Assessment aims to shine a spotlight on the unique requirements of these flood-affected communities but supports a wider call for children’s voices to be heard and accounted for across all disaster planning.


The needs assessment is the first phase in a $4.5 million flood response program, funded by the Australian Government, through the Department of Health and Aged Care to deliver an evidence-based program to support the mental health and wellbeing of children under 12 years of age in 30 schools and preschools in flood affected communities across Northern NSW and South East QLD. It is also set to help develop the knowledge and capacity of parents, carers, and educators to support the wellbeing of children in their care.


Since the 2020 Black Summer Bushfires, UNICEF Australia and Royal Far West have partnered to ensure that children’s needs are put central to the way the nation plans for, responds to, and recovers from major events – an area that is frequently overlooked. 


Cascading disasters including the most recent Queensland bushfires also highlights the importance of a long-term approach to supporting communities most at risk, to ensure that sustained adverse impacts on children are minimised.


The needs assessment, undertaken in August last year, has helped identify schools where the well-being program will commence, with services to start later this term. Royal Far West’s experience from supporting children in the aftermath of major events indicates that children can experience adverse impacts for up to five years after disasters, and it can often remain hidden for long periods after the disaster. This can make an incredible impact to a child’s development and life trajectory, particularly when the right support networks are not in place.


“When disasters strike, it’s essential children and young people get the right support at the right time. This means tailoring responses to the needs of young people within these devastated communities, during and after disasters, so they can readily access support services, continue their education, receive mental health counselling, have a safe place to stay and play in the immediate aftermath, and have their voices heard,” an RFW spokesperson said.


“The findings of this assessment demonstrate that the floods have had a significant impact on the lives and wellbeing of children in Northern NSW and South East Queensland,” added Nicole Breeze, Chief Advocate for Children at UNICEF Australia. 


While the funding of the flood response program is “a welcome and necessary investment in the recovery of children in flood affected areas,” she continued, as climate change fuels more frequent and intense disasters, Australian Governments must be prepared to scale-up investments in child-sensitive disaster response, recovery, and resilience-building measures across the country.


Key findings of the needs assessment include:


Impact to children’s mental health and behaviour


  • Children have heightened anxiety about the rain and are often showing unwillingness to be separated from parents when it is raining. Educators have also observed an increase in disruptive behaviour when it is raining
  • Children with no previous behavioural issues have developed issues such as difficulties with concentration and learning and are more withdrawn


It is also common to see the following behaviours in children:


  • Increased tension or an inability to relax or calm down
  • Increased sensitivity to small noises or movements
  • Loss of skills they recently developed, like feeding themselves or using the toilet
  • Increased fussiness and clinginess. This can be a sign of a deeper fear of separation and is particularly common among children who were separated from their parents during the flood
  • Crying all the time or with increased intensity
  • Avoiding new things, new places or getting frightened by reminders of the event
  • A visible lack of interest or energy; seeming limp. Reduced interest in things or a ‘spaced out’ stare
  • Resistance to directions or requests
  • Experiencing colds, headaches, or tummy aches more often
  • Reliving the trauma by drawing the event, playing ‘disaster’, or repeatedly asking questions or talking about the flood
  • Blaming themselves and feeling guilty about the flood or making up stories about ‘why’ it happened
  • Sleep problems – for example, being afraid to go to sleep, needing a nightlight or having nightmares.


While these changes are not always uncommon, it’s when they continue after many months that support is required.


Education disruptions and impact


  • Schools and early childhood centres saw education disruptions, with closures and re-locations limiting access. While schools and preschools have re-commenced, the ongoing floods have seen continued delays to the teaching curriculum due to changing conditions
  • Children need routine, safety, and continuity of learning during and after disasters to support their mental wellbeing and development
  • In continued rain and poor weather there is increased absenteeism from schools, which is driving social development impacts and learning disruptions
  • The stop-and-start nature and inconsistent attendance at kindergarten means it’s taking longer for children to connect with peers, the education programs are being slowed down and more children are not school ready
  • When children are at school their ability to pay attention and concentrate appears reduced and is affecting their academic performance.


Lack of access to services


  • Children cannot access places to connect, play and develop their social skills as many have lost places where they can play outside and in their homes
  • Mental health professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors are hard to access in most communities, with a lack of specialists, long waits, and costs being significant barriers to access.


“We’ve seen first-hand the positive impact that child-led support programs can have on the development of children, not only from our community recovery work in the aftermath of the bushfires, but from our day-to-day work at Royal Far West. We know there is a lack of mental health services available in these flood-affected communities and are keen to get out into these communities to make an impact,” the RFW spokesperson continued.


RFW Community Recovery Services will be delivered in 30 schools and preschools across the Northern Rivers and South-East Queensland including Wardell PS, Ballina PS, Coraki PS, Lismore South PS, Laidley State School in the Lockyer Valley and One Mile State School on the North Coast.


Access the needs assessment in full here

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