The number of children receiving counselling at four schools in the Blue Mountains has doubled since the recent bushfires, the government psychologist responsible for their care has revealed.
Department of Education district guidance officer Rose Glassock said that more than 100 children are receiving support from school psychologists.
At the same time, one of Australia’s leading specialist trauma psychologists, who has offered counselling after earthquakes, cyclones and bushfires, said some children may have post-traumatic stress disorder following the October fire, which destroyed more than 200 properties.
”In the primary schools, the most common referral was disturbed nights, nightmares where the content may or may not have been about the fires but previously they didn’t have nightmares and now they are,” she said.
”With the littler kids there is increasing clinginess. Little five or six-year-olds don’t want to leave mum at the gate any more.”
She said one of the reactions to trauma was the loss of capacity for memory and language which impacts in a classroom setting. Teachers might have to use more visual methods, might have to write more on the board or give children more reminders about tasks.
”In the older kids probably it’s more if they were anxious and of a worrying sort of temperament, then that has increased. Anxiety and worry have increased,” Ms Glassock said. That many teachers had also been personally affected and lost their homes added a ”layer of complexity”, she said.
A key thing after the fire was to try and return to routine, she said.
”We weren’t returning to normal but school is a routine and when you have got kids at school you can get easily back into the rhythm of it and then [with the holiday about to start] for five or six weeks we don’t have it and then we throw Christmas on top of it,” Ms Glassock said. ”It can be a very stressful time.”
Her comments were endorsed by Brett McDermott, a child and youth psychologist and board member of Beyond Blue which assists with anxiety and depression. He has given trauma support after cyclones Yasi and Larry and the bushfires in Sutherland, Canberra and Tasmania.
”This person is a very good school psychologist because she is exactly right,” Professor McDermott said.
”Everything she has said bears fruit with previous disaster research and I have been involved in about six disaster responses. Younger children have regressed behaviour, which includes more clinginess. They stop doing things which they were able to do like separate from their parents. Older primary school kids get a range of anxiety conditions.”
He said that in the first couple of months ”if you are going to get better you will get better naturally”, which happens to most people.
”But if you are still very symptomatic at three months, which is early next year, we will be suggesting you really should strongly consider taking up one of the offers of assistance,” Professor McDermott said.
Trauma specialist psychologist Annie Cantwell-Bartl said children and adults would be grieving as well as being traumatised.
”You are not devastated all the time but part of grieving is you feel OK, then you are hit again and then you think you are OK for a while, then the grief hits again,” Ms Cantwell-Bartl said. ”Routine helps keep kids safe. They need to talk about it and know that these are safe days and that it would be unlikely that the fires would come back and that mum and dad are very prepared.”
Christmas up in smoke
Seven weeks after the devastating fires and 10 days before Christmas, Blue Mountains residents are doing their best to make it business as usual preparing for the festive season.
Holly and Steve Kiely were well organised this year. They had bought the presents for their four children, wrapped them and hidden them on top of the bedroom cupboard at their Winmalee home.
Mrs Kiely dropped the girls Amaya, 11, and Kiahna, eight, at Ellison Public School on the day of the fire and then got stuck in a traffic jam trying to get home.
She said: ”We sent a fire-fighter friend a message joking around saying, ‘When can we go home?”’
The reply was shocking: he rang Steve, a personal trainer whose studio was also destroyed, and said, ”Mate, there is no home. We couldn’t save your house.”
Mrs Kiely added: ”Everything was ready to go. All we had to do was put the tree up which was in the attic along with some lovely decorations.”
They are now renting a small three-bedroom house in Cranebrook, more than 30 minutes from school.
Amaya, on Friday made vice-captain at school, said: ”I lost all my soccer stuff, I had a few soccer balls, boots and shin-pads and stuff. For Christmas I would like my Playstation FIFA 13 game again.”
Kiahna lost favourite teddies Boo and Hannah. She hopes for a Furby and a Monster High makeover kit.
Mr Kiely, looking at the wrecked home, said: ”The two boys, [Cael, four, and Reagan, three,] haven’t cared. They don’t quite understand, even coming here, but the older two get emotional from day to day.
”One day everything is fine then all of a sudden they will break down.”
Mrs Kiely added: ”They are resilient, they try to move on but some days they just break down and cry.”
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 15 December 2013.