Through floods, drought, plague and pandemic: Mental Health Commission looks to learn from Forbes response

An aerial view of the 2016 floods shows just how much crop was inundated and farmland isolated, the same country hit again in 2021 with brutal drought in between.
An aerial view of the 2016 floods shows just how much crop was inundated and farmland isolated, the same country hit again in 2021 with brutal drought in between.

Local knowledge and services that are here for the long haul are key to recovery and wellbeing in the wake of natural disaster.

That's one message from a study commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of NSW which has included researchers visiting Forbes.

After facing floods, drought, mouse plague and pandemic in the past five years, Forbes was chosen - just one of five communities - to be part of a Mental Health Commission of NSW-sponsored study.

The Mental Health Commission sponsored the NSW Council of Social Service to explore the role of local "assets" in recovery from natural disaster, and they partnered with the University of Canberra to interview representatives of neighbourhood centres, local charity groups and volunteer organisations in Forbes.

The Community Resilience, Wellbeing and Recovery Project is one of the first of its kind to examine the role played by local people and community sector organisations in disaster recovery, wellbeing and resilience.

Mental Health Commissioner of NSW Ms Catherine Lourey said the findings highlight the importance of local organisations and people in both emergency response and long-term resilience in the Forbes region.

"Locals know their communities and needs better than anyone," Ms Lourey said.

"They are there for the long haul, and long after the government agencies and big relief organisations and charities leave town after a disaster, and they can identify the people in need who have not put their hand up for help."

Ms Lourey said the Forbes Shire has a long list of highly valued organisations and people who work hard to service residents during disasters.

These include local community-based groups such as Rotary, the Country Women's Association (CWA) as well as the 1400-member Forbes Community Facebook group, contributing to a strong recognition in the region that recovery and resilience must be community led.

However, the community identified that the region continues to face several critical challenges that can limit efforts for recovery from natural disasters, including the need for more mental health and wellbeing supports to assist in the long term and not just immediately after a disaster and better delivery of critical information about government assistance and financial support.

The Community Resilience, Wellbeing and Recovery Project Insights Report identifies seven key factors in disaster recovery and resilience for the Forbes region.

These key factors include:

  • A need to overcome the mismatch between knowledge-rich external organisations with disaster experience and often poorly funded local organisation with local knowledge
  • A need for more mental health services and supports to assist long term, not just in the immediate disaster aftermath
  • A recognition that many people - particularly farmers - are slow to ask for help and that funding needs to be available in the long-term.

The Forbes Shire experienced regular and sometimes overlapping natural disasters in recent years, including extended drought, major floods - including the most recent flooding - as well as a mouse plague, and impacts on farm and regional incomes.

"The lessons from the experiences of the Forbes region over the past few years have helped create resources that enable other local community groups and leaders to better co-ordinate with larger, out-of-area service providers during natural disasters to produce better outcomes," Ms Lourey said.

These community resources comprise a guide and workbook for community-based organisations to help identify their role in disaster recovery and community resilience, as well as planning and preparation, and a guide for funders, large organisations and others seeking to support local organisations during disasters.

"The impacts of these disasters can last for years and what we know is that many don't seek help immediately," Ms Lourey said.

"That's when local knowledge can play a vital role after other sources of help may have moved on.

"We have heatwaves, floods, droughts, locust, and mice plagues as well as the financial and emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with too little time to recover before the next disaster happens.

"Many participants reported funding assistance ended too soon, with post disaster needs and mental health issues often not becoming apparent for 12 to 18 months.

"For many people, recovery is something that doesn't end.

"It's a process that extends sometimes for years after a disaster and can be prolonged by successive disasters, all of which impact resilience and wellbeing in a community."

NCOSS CEO Joanna Quilty said the learnings were crucial to strengthen our response to these events.

"These resources will strengthen the response of the NGO sector - helping to build resilience before a crisis and better respond after one," she said.

New funding has been made available to disaster-affected communities for specific projects since this report was finalised in October 2021.

Need to talk?

The Rural Adversity Mental Program has compiled this list of emergency contacts:

If you're concerned about your own or someone else's mental health, you can call the NSW Mental Health Line 1800 011 511 for advice.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

The following services are there to listen and help you out. They are confidential and available 24/7.

Further findings

More insight into the key findings from Forbes, many of which were similar to those identified in the other four case studies:

  • Many organisations provide services and supports in the region, including government and non-government organisations;
  • Timing of delivering disaster recovery support is critical - many people need time to identify the types of support that can best help them recover;
  • Inflexible governance and eligibility criteria for accessing support can hinder disaster recovery;
  • Communication, coordination and collaboration between organisations is critical;
  • Support existing organisations to build capacity as well as funding new organisations to enter the community;
  • Community-led identification of needs is essential to positive recovery;
  • There is often a lack of resourcing to assist with longer term recovery needs;
  • Lack of skilled and experienced staff is common and reduced effectiveness of disaster response and recovery efforts;
  • Complex disaster support application processes act as a barrier to effective disaster response;
  • Directories of organisations and staff involved in disaster recovery need regular updating.