Rural — 26 February 2014

Mental health professionals in bushfire-prone areas say they are regularly seeing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in patients.

Ned Tkalcevic, a psychotherapist in Victoria’s Gippsland region, has treated a range of mental health conditions following Black Saturday and the recent spate of bushfires.

“People have repetitive nightmares about fire. They’ll shy away from their own wood fires and they’ll occasionally have panic attacks just sitting at home watching their open fire place,” he said.

“Essentially, they have developed what you would call a post-traumatic stress disorder. They become very reactive to loud noises, they have disturbed, disrupted sleep patterns.

“They have high Cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in their brain, and if that’s there all the time, you develop a sense of being powerless, at the whims and mercies of your own emotional state.”w1200_h678_fmax

Based in the Gippsland town of Maffra, Mr Tkalcevic says those who were exposed to the Black Saturday fires can experience a sense of disbelief at having to deal with another season of high fire danger.

“All of a sudden this spectre has been raised again and often those people will crack.”

CEO of SNAP Gippsland Community Health, Christine McNamara, says the months and even years following a bushfire can prompt the most serious mental health concerns.

“People struggle with frightening memories and a sense of constant danger, and it takes quite some time to get over that and feel secure.”

Mr Tkalcevic, who specialises in counselling and rehabilitation, says people should be alert to symptoms such as hyperventilation, dilated pupils, pasty or flushed skin and sleep disturbance.

“Think about it as truss tomatoes as opposed to a single tomato. The same way you will have a number of tomatoes on a vine, you will have a number of symptoms on that vine,” he said.

“If your capacity in any functional area of your life has gone down, and it stays down, then you need to seek help.”

He says he is continuing to learn more about mental health reactions to bushfire and strategies to assist in recovery each fire season.

“For me personally, it has been a huge learning curve in terms of dealing with the survivors and thrivers of those events,” Mr Tkalcevic said.

“It has also reinforced that the only thing we have in common as human beings is that all of us are different.”

This article first appeared on ABC News on 25 February, 2014.


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