Mental health support after an emergency or natural disaster

This page provides resources for schools about mental health support for students and staff following an emergency or natural disaster.

For support specific to the 2019-2020 bushfires, see: Mental health support for the 2019-2020 bushfires

Impact of an emergency or natural disaster on mental health

Major incidents and natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, fires or cyclones can be traumatic and stressful for children, young people and adults, with impacts on mental health and wellbeing. 

It is normal for children and young people to show sign of distress following such incidents. Common symptoms and signs include:

  • changes in behaviour including withdrawal from normal activities, isolation or acting out
  • peer conflict 
  • reactivation of previous behavioural issues 
  • increased clinginess and/or difficulties with separation 
  • re-enacting negative events in plays and stories 
  • difficulty talking about traumatic events 
  • new awareness of death and mortality 
  • anxiety related to loss of security and safety 
  • increased vigilance for signs of danger 
  • decline in educational function including poor concentration.

Mental health support

Information on mental health support in schools, including the Department’s partnership with headspace to deliver counselling to secondary students is available via the Mental Health Toolkit

Managing trauma response and recovery planning

Exposure to trauma can have significant long-term adverse effects for students, staff, parents and carers.

The Managing Trauma guide supports principals, Student Support Services (SSS) and recovery teams to lead emotional and psychological recovery at a school following a school-based incident or natural disaster.

Effective leadership at such times can significantly reduce trauma and protect students, staff and school community members from physical, psychological and emotional harm.

Psychological first aid

Psychological first aid is a term used to describe strategies to assess and protect children, young people and adults in the immediate aftermath of an emergency or natural disaster. Psychological first aid is recommended after such incidents to reduce distress and assist with meeting basic needs, such as providing:

  • comfort
  • reassurance
  • support
  • connection with family, friends and the wider community.

Psychological first aid for children and young people is guided by the key principles of listen, protect and connect.

Listen

Following an emergency or disaster it is important to provide children and young people with an opportunity to share their experiences and express their feelings.

When children and young people are sharing their experiences it is important to:

  • listen to what they are saying
  • take notice of how they are behaving. Children and young people may show how they are feeling in a non-verbal way (e.g. they may be distressed, agitated, withdrawn or unsettled)
  • respond encouragingly, and show interest and empathy
  • acknowledge any difficulty they may be having
  • avoid making judgments and predictions
  • respect their wishes not to share thoughts or feelings.

Protect

To re-establish children and young people's feelings of physical and emotional safety following an emergency or disaster, it is important to:

  • treat their fears, worries and other concerns with respect, and provide help that is supportive and discreet
  • answer questions honestly using age appropriate explanations
  • provide opportunities to write or draw about the event (this should not be a compulsory activity)
  • let them know most reactions to the event are normal
  • make adjustments to activities or tasks that are sensitive to their current level of functioning
  • be aware of things that might re-traumatise children and adolescents.

Connect

Following an emergency or natural disaster it is important to help children and young people re-establish their normal social relationships and stay connected to others in order to experience social support. Restoring and building connections promotes stability and recovery.

You can encourage connections by:

  • 'checking in' regularly with children and young people 
  • communicating regularly with others involved with the child or young person 
  • ensuring resources are available
  • encouraging interactive school activities, class projects, school based projects and community activities
  • brainstorming ways that connect children and young people with their school and community.

Mental health support services

Support services for students

Information on mental health support in schools, including the Department’s partnership with headspace to deliver counselling to secondary students is available in the Mental Health Toolkit

External services include:

Support services for staff

Support for staff is available through: Employee, safety and wellbeing services

Call the Employee Assistance Program on: 1300 361 008. 

Or to access external services, call:

External mental health resources