Helping when the spotlight fades: Sam’s disaster response story 

Australian Psychological Society

A member of the APS Disaster Response Network has learned that often it’s months after a tragedy when psychological support can have the greatest impact.

When bushfires rage and flood levels rise, they consume our attention. But when the flames go out, the water disappears and the media moves on, trauma and hardship can linger.

After a catastrophe, some people in disaster-affected communities manage to restore their lives relatively quickly. For others, it can take a lot longer. And amid this struggle, the community’s initial sense of togetherness tends to fade.

This is when psychologist Sam Dwyer likes to be on hand to help.

“When something terrible has happened to a community, usually they unite in their trauma. But over time, perceptions of inequality emerge and rifts can appear. Some people get back to normal and are rebuilding, while others are waiting on insurance claims, are underinsured or uninsured, and have lost everything.

“That ripple effect happens six to 12 months down the track, which is why we need to keep checking in.”

Dwyer volunteers for the APS Disaster Response Network (DRN) – a group of APS psychologists who volunteer psychological first aid services to first responders and frontline staff during emergencies, followed by support during the recovery phase.

All volunteers are offered extensive training in emergency management via the APS Disaster Response Training, which is currently funded by the federal government.

A passionate volunteer

When Dwyer saw an ad in 2021 to volunteer for the DRN, she didn’t have to think twice – it was a perfect combination of her professional background in psychology and her passion for volunteering in emergency services.

The Melbourne-based psychologist has always been fascinated by emergency response. For 25 years she’s worked in leadership development for emergency services, government organisations and private companies. She has also supported other psychologists in emergency management.

Dwyer is also an enthusiastic volunteer with Life Saving Victoria (LSV), holding the role of Patrol Captain at her local club, and she has also been on the Mental Health and Wellbeing working group for LSV and headed up Women in Life Saving for a few years now.

“I’d seen first-hand the traumatic impacts of major emergencies on the mental health of first responders, individuals and communities, and how we rely on so few people to continue this sustained effort.”

Answering the call

During late 2022, when rivers across northern Victoria broke their banks, inundating towns, Dwyer received her first call of duty for the DRN. As the crisis unfolded, she provided psychological first aid and referrals to those leading the response.

“You’re dealing with shock and trauma; people are losing their homes, their livestock, their farms and sometimes their livelihoods. It’s about being calm, being able to listen, and promoting that sense of safety,” she says.

DRN Volunteer Sam Dwyer

APS Disaster Response Network member Sam Dwyer

She also witnessed first-hand the importance of follow-up care.

One first responder, who was “pretty positive over the community rallying together” in late 2022, had lost her hope by mid-2023.

The woman had been hosting close friends who had lost their home in the floods. While she was initially hopeful of getting them back on their feet quickly, the weeks had dragged into months and there wasn’t a clear end in sight.

“Without support from their insurance company, which was dealing with lots of claims, the family living with her had become helpless,” says Dwyer.

“This woman was trying to help and support them while working full-time hours. There was so much frustration in her own home and she felt she couldn’t escape. She was exhausted and her hope of returning to normal day-to-day life had diminished.”

Dwyer’s support was no longer about psychological first aid, but about developing a long-term strategy.

“I helped her reframe her timelines and goals, and we talked about finding an anchor outside the home, which has really helped her.”

Building hope

Dwyer recalls another woman who was very new to a frontline leadership role when the floods hit. Faced with a tragedy she hadn’t anticipated, she ended up managing people from multiple agencies and later worried whether she had adequately supported her family and community.

“I helped her refocus and recognise what she had done, and the difference that she had made.”

Dwyer says many don’t appreciate the exhaustion, the doubts and the inability to return to normal functioning that people experience after a major incident.

​​”Once an emergency moves to a recovery, the news cameras disappear and there’s less support. Yet people are exhausted, their lives on hold as they continue to help others, often in their own communities, who have been significantly impacted.

“By winter this year, some people in those flood-affected communities across northern Victoria were doing well while others remained in limbo, and that perceived sense of inequity had created a sense of disconnection.”

She says while the surge support offered during the floods was vital, she thinks the check-ins she’s done in June and July have been of even greater value.

“I believe this follow-up mental health support is one of the most valuable things the DRN offers. We’re helping people to readjust their expectations. We’re helping people to see their competence and value, which gives them hope. We’re looking at ways to improve connectedness throughout the community.

“And in this way,​​ we’re helping frontline workers to support others, which contributes to overall community resilience.”

Keeping the bucket full

Psychologists fully comprehend the significance of maintaining personal strength to assist others, especially during a crisis or disaster response. In these times, Dwyer has learned to prioritise her own mental and physical wellbeing.

“I’m pretty cognizant of maintaining balance between my career, my volunteer life and my family life, while also making time for friends. I think if you balance your time, then something goes wrong or traumatises you in one part of your life, you’ve got those strong supports and a state of normalcy in the others.”

She’s also a firm believer in exercise and meditation – which for her comes as one.

“When I have to be switched on to help others, I make sure I go for a run every morning. For me, that’s a meditation time where I think things through. I think about perspectives and about the contexts people are operating in.”

She has also learned the power of saying ‘no’ when her plate is full, and the importance of seeking support from other psychologists she trusts and respects when she needs to.

Dwyer describes volunteering for the DRN as a “privilege” and says she would encourage others to do the same – provided they have the time, the headspace and the right support in place.

“All of those amazing people who respond to a major emergency, paid or not, put their lives on hold knowing that it’s going to be traumatic. Supporting them when they are so fatigued helps protect their mental health and wellbeing and gives them relief.

“And helping people take charge of their lives, to have more positive outcomes, to feel happy with what they’ve got and what they can achieve, is so rewarding.

“It’s an incredible way to give back.”

/Public Release. View in full here.