The Australian Government announced the development of a National Disaster Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework on 12 January 2020, as part of a package of mental health measures responding to the widespread and destructive ‘Black Summer’ bushfires in 2019. As in many parts of the world, Australia is experiencing an increased frequency, severity, and impact of climate-influenced disasters.1 Catastrophic fires, floods, cyclones, droughts, heat waves, landslides, hailstorms, plagues and the current pandemic have all occurred recently. Rural and remote communities with limited services have been harshly affected. The Framework helps prepare Australia for this changing environment.
In an emergency, many people and organisations rush to assist; but assisting can be complex, with different levels of government and communities working across state and regional boundaries, in settings where transport and communications are damaged, and where people are experiencing multiple adversities. Often the aftermath of a disaster, including the economic and social disruption and the stress associated with locating help, can be as challenging as the impact of the disaster itself.
People’s mental health and wellbeing following disasters is dependent on collaborative and well-coordinated action by all recovery partners. While it is well-recognised that social factors can strengthen or undermine people’s health, including mental health, this is particularly evident following a disaster where so many people are affected. The Framework focuses on action to support individuals as well as action to strengthen families and communities given the evidence clearly indicating that community connections are vital to recovery, adaptation, and resilience in the future.
The Framework takes forward the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Recommendation 15.3, which seeks refined cross-jurisdictional arrangements to support localised planning and delivery of mental health services before, during, and after a disaster.
It takes as a starting point the influential United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) intervention pyramid and adapts this for the Australian context. In Australia, distance and remoteness make the planning and prevention phase particularly important.
The Framework recognises the centrality of land, culture, and environment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’s wellbeing and drives towards genuine partnerships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, organisations, and all recovery partners. It acknowledges that Indigenous-led approaches should be integrated into collaborative mental health and wellbeing responses to disasters.