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Survival instincts and creating a ‘new normal’

As buildings are replaced, roads patched, and communities wait for a return to their homes, the Royal Flying Doctor Service continues to provide its essential mental health service with a focus on “psychological first aid” in the weeks after post-Cyclone Jasper floods impacted the region surrounding Cooktown. 

“Since the New Year, a senior mental health clinician has made weekly trips down to Rossville and Ayton, to provide psychological first aid and social and emotional wellbeing support,” said Jos Middleton, Manager of RFDS Far North Mental Health, Qld Section.

“Clinicians have reflected on how devastating it is - the amount of landslides they’ve observed have been really profound in [showing] how much mother nature has shifted.” 

The RFDS also operated an emergency counselling and advice service by telephone in the immediate aftermath of the floods. But after eight weeks, Jos said the demand for that service was lessening as people began to create their “new norm”.

“Human beings aren’t designed for trauma,” she explained. “So when we do experience traumatic events we sometimes struggle to make sense of what’s happened to us.

“But we are also hard-wired for survival … we have this innate desire to survive and be alive. We can create a new normal. There might be some differences, and obviously at the moment, for a lot of those people who have been impacted, those differences are going to be around where they are living, how they’re sleeping, how they’re cooking their meals.  

“As time goes by, people will fall into a new routine with their new normal and create new habits with it, which supports them to stabilise. 

“The service needs of those in flood-affected areas is shifting as we move into the recovery phase and we are now seeing an increase in people seeking longer-term counselling rather than the brief interventions and psychological first aid that was required soon after the event.”

Grief and loss, Jos acknowledges, can linger a lot longer for some people.

“It’s not something we can switch on and off, our mental health, and it has been a devastating disaster across the region.”

She agrees that government-funding fatigue can also be formidable. 

“Absolutely, it’s a minefield to navigate, the amount of paperwork that comes with some of those requests, and navigating the complex processes, can just be so overwhelming for people. They could be looking around the house and saying, ‘I don’t even have a pen anymore, my pens have all been washed away and yet somebody is here telling me to fill out 20 pages of paper to access enough money to get a new fridge’,” Jos said. 

“We really encourage people to take one step at a time, map out what the to-do list is, think about some effective problem-solving skills, and look at what support is needed to help us solve those problems. Try and pick off some of the easy, low-hanging fruit, and then take a bit of time thinking about ‘which one I feel up to today’. Try and stay in the now.” 

The RFDS Mental Health team aims to support people through the stress of dealing with these longer-term “to-dos”.

Staff have also increased in number, and connection with their regular clients has been maintained throughout these past few months. 

“In the last couple of weeks, we have been able to lift our heads up from Ayton and Rossville, we can step back a little there, and we’ve now got time to look for the people of Wujal Wujal that we haven’t seen for a while, some have dispersed, and see how we can be of support to them. They are used to having us around.”

“For example, when the clinicians that work from Cooktown and Wujal Wujal are in Cairns, they are bumping into Wujal Wujal people left, right and centre, at the night markets, that sort of thing, and providing more informal support, which is really lovely.” 

As the communities re-build, so too will RFDS staff take their place back within them. 

The RFDS also has an “incredible resource”, the Mental Health and Well Being on the Land book, which includes a chapter on natural disasters and another on grief and loss as well as practical tips to help people with their mental well-being. 

The book is available through the RFDS and Cape York NRM will also be restocking its shelves at the Cooktown office, with free copies.

RFDS mental health services are available by contacting 4040 0444 or emailing 

GP referral is not required to access this FREE, confidential, professional service. 

People can also access Lifeline 13 11 14 and 13YARN 24/7.