THOSE facing drought conditions – and now bushfires – across large swathes of eastern Australia are going through countless emotions – despair, helplessness, hopelessness, fear and anger, to name a few.
With dams empty, rivers stagnant and pastures reduced to dust, this drought is the worst since the 1940s – even longer in some areas – and people are looking for someone to blame.
Much anger has been directed at the Federal Government, with people blaming politicians for being too slow to act.
Its latest move, the announcement of a drought package approaching $1 billion, has been generally well received, even if some see it as “too little, too late”.
What we do know is that regardless of the size of an assistance package, the social and economic impact of this drought will flow through the affected communities for years, even decades.
Drought is often described as insidious.
It creeps up on you, slowly draining you of energy and hope.
Few will understand the anguish faced by farmers forced to deal with the reality of this current drought, except those living in regional Australia who see their local towns suffer through lack of community activity, the loss of income and prosperity, and increasing suicide rates.
The long- term forecast for rain is not promising.
We need rain, but it is continuing uncertainty that heightens personal anguish and despair.
Faith will carry many people through the heartache and pain of the drought.
Some will find great comfort in the Catholic Church’s call to dedicate the month of November as a time to pray for those affected by crippling drought conditions and to pray for the gift of rain.
For others, it is the knowledge that the drought will eventually break that brings comfort.
Regardless of what brings people strength, natural disasters – whether droughts, fires or floods – take their toll on the mental health of those directly affected and those who support them.
Accessing appropriate mental health supports and services in rural communities, in particular, can be difficult.
This is not just because there are fewer mental health services in these areas, but because country people consider themselves to be resilient.
They are often reluctant to seek help through identified counselling and health services.
There are unique challenges in providing mental health, counselling and support services to the communities that most need them.
The Australian Government’s current policy focus is on delivering immediate material relief to those affected by the drought and bushfires.
The Government has supported actions to help prepare for future droughts.
The Government must also consider investing in mental health support for the immediate crisis, as well as post-crisis recovery and preparedness for future natural disasters.
Sadly, it is the post-crisis recovery and support for the future that is all too often neglected.
In 2014, the Government initiated a highly successful community mental health program that was beginning to break through the social and cultural barriers to people in need of support, linking people to the services they needed, supporting families who were trying to cope in the face of an ever-worsening drought and building more resilient and cohesive communities.
Unfortunately, this program ceased in June 2016.
Catholic social services providers operate across more than 650 sites nationally.
Add to this the Vinnies network and parish-based ministries, and the Catholic Church has a unique and formidable presence across metropolitan, regional and rural Australia.
The Church also has more than 620,000 people attending Mass each week across more than 1380 parishes.
There is a richness of community that exists within many of our drought – and bushfire-affected communities.
Imagine how much good could be done if we empowered these communities with the tools and knowledge to help their family, friends and community members inside and outside the Church to better deal with the stresses of drought, bushfires and floods.
Community members, family and friends often act as the first point for support for those suffering from mental health issues.
Empowering people at a community level to act as a soft entry point to mental health services might be the best way to get those who would otherwise not seek help to receive the support they need.
Governments and health bureaucrats need to recognise and value the opportunity the vast Catholic community offers by funding the provision of tailored tools and information that would open new pathways for people needing to access mental health support.
The true cost of natural disasters is more than the economy and environment; it affects us as a society and as individuals.
Our prayers for those suffering are important, but so too is proper investment in support, especially for those who will suffer mental health issues long after the disaster has ended.
Joe Zabar is deputy chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services Australia.