Unblocking the road to recovery: Gregory’s disaster response story 

Australian Psychological Society

A member of the APS Disaster Response Network shares how this volunteer program has added important skills to his psychological toolkit.

Gregory Goodluck MAPS has always had a deep-seated desire to help others. You could say it’s in his blood. As the son of two missionaries who ran the local Lifeline in his community, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear them on late-night calls, supervising counsellors, supporting people in distress and in need of guidance.

“Helping others was a deep value for my family,” says Goodluck.

This is what eventually led him to a career in the mental health space.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go down the psychology path or the social work path, so I did my honours in psych and then completed social work at Flinders University in Adelaide.”

He then spent time working as a clinical case manager in South Australia Mental Health Services, before making the move back to the Northern Territory – where he was born and spent the majority of his childhood – to teach orientation to mental health work at Nungalinya College Community Services.

“Then I moved to the Melaleuca refugee centre in Darwin as a torture and trauma counsellor and advocate… where I started my supervised practicum in psychology.”

Goodluck then went on to work at Anglicare Resolve counselling and mediation services, and privately as an Employee Assistance Program provider on Groote Eylandt, off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Gulf Carpentaria, and eventually made his way into full-time private practice.

“I’ve been a registered psychologist for about 14 years now, and a member of APS for the same amount of time.”

Despite accumulating a range of expertise from his professional life so far, Goodluck had a desire to do more. At the time of the 2009 Black Saturday Fires, he recalls getting a phone call from someone who sounded delusional.

“It was my old teacher. He was having a mental breakdown after the Steels Creek bushfires. It was devastating.

“I had friends and mentors living in the Yarra Valley near King Lake who nearly died in the fires,” he says. “They only survived due to their adult children and family hiring a helicopter. They lost their home and property, and went through massive trauma and grief – and they were trauma therapists!”

“I certainly saw the impact that disasters have on people and how incredibly draining it can be for individual mental health practitioners working on their own during the recovery efforts.”

This experience planted a seed for Goodluck that was further spurred in 2020 when he was driving through Gippsland on break from an art therapy training and was struck by further devastation left in the wake of a bushfire.

“I got in the car and drove for 3 or 4 hours to the outskirts of Bairnsdale and I saw the tin roofs that had melted and houses that were completely flattened.”

His compassion fuelled him to “answer the call” to undergo the free program provided by APS on Disaster Response Training and subsequently became a member of its Disaster Response Network (DRN). The DRN is made up of volunteer psychologists who are trained to support frontline and emergency workers affected by trauma and critical incident stress.

Undergoing the training

As the entire world was undergoing a prolonged disaster period in October 2020, Goodluck saw an opportunity to sharpen his disaster response skillset. So he enrolled in the free APS course and spent the next 12 months upskilling himself.

“I thought, ‘I’ll do that training because I might be able to help some people.’ As it turns out, I have been able to help the people who help people. The ripple effect of that is really useful.”

The training is multidisciplinary and has a psychosocial focus, he says.

“It’s not just about psychological intervention on an individual level, it’s on a community level too. That’s what attracted me to it.”1

One of the most impactful aspects of the disaster response training, says Goodluck, is the organised and structured nature of the resources provided.

“You need a structured approach to maintain effectiveness,” he says. “I learned fairly early on in mental health that having a theoretical framework doesn’t make you cold and detached, it gives you respite from feeling overwhelmed with personal response. And so it’s important to strike a balance between an empathic, personal response and a rational, problem-solving, strategising approach.”

“Literally having maps and pathways to understand what a community might be going through – for example, the phases of disaster (see below) – was particularly useful.”

Goodluck said there was an “incredible array” of resources that came with the training that helped him feel more confident when entering a disaster response environment, such as a visual breakdown of the phases of a disaster and its aftermath (see below).

The training also included important information about effective communication styles during different times in crisis and important decision paths to follow during times of high stress.

“You’re able to foresee what some of the roadblocks to recovery are and be a part of bringing those things into play. That’s magic. There’s nothing worse than watching a disaster unfold and not knowing what to do.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I think there’s going to be a lot more need for this type of training in the future. You’ve only got to switch the news on to see what the world is shaping up to look like.”

Putting lessons into action

As well as drawing on his years of experience supporting vulnerable community members, Goodluck was able to call on his recently acquired disaster response skills in response to a disaster that took place near his home in early 2023.

He assisted the Red Cross to provide free support to the 768 people seeking shelter in Howard Springs, a former pandemic-quarantine centre near Darwin, following severe flooding in March 2023.

“The initial disaster was the flooding down at the Barkly District – which you might call the outback of the NT. But, essentially, a disaster can be a cluster of critical incidents that are ongoing. There can be secondary crises that arise.”

Evacuees were housed in the facility for months, after being forced to flee their homes in the remote communities of Kalkarindji, Daguragu and Pigeon Hole. This prolonged period of close-quarter living led to a range of psychosocial issues, according to reports.

“The camp itself was set up like a prison, really. And we had lots and lots of families crammed in there. So all sorts of social problems erupted.”

Various organisations came in to support recovery efforts, but were faced with challenging situations.

“Particular staff were coming across incidents like being yelled at, chased or being told off. Some witnessed accidents where somebody had been grievously injured or died.

“Via phone counselling, I supported a manager and someone else who had witnessed a critical incident.”

Goodluck gave people space to debrief about their personal experiences of abuse or the distressing things they witnessed.

“I was able to help provide to people within that environment a framework, map or schema… for them to make sense of what was happening, and to be able to start to, where appropriate, file away memories… until they had a more cathartic [opportunity] to discharge and slow down the bottleneck of thoughts and emotions they might be experiencing.”

Caring for yourself

This type of disaster response work can be addictive, says Goodluck, because your adrenal gland is highly active and that motivates you to keep going and going.

“You don’t realise how exhausted you are until you stop, and it can take days to get back to feeling normal. That can be a really uncomfortable feeling,” he says. “And it is tempting to avoid that feeling, by not stopping… which makes it addictive”

That’s why it’s so important to have a framework in place to support your own self-care.

Even if you’re a psychologist who might be physically distanced from the disaster, working with those on the frontline can be emotionally taxing, says Goodluck.

“You know you’ve got adrenal glands when you’re working in this area,” he says. “Even if you’re at arm’s length and helping other people who have been in it for the last 18 hours and have just want to debrief.”

For Goodluck, he finds utilising some of the tactics that he uses with his own clients to be helpful to deal with sympathetic nervous system hyperarousal. These include, parasympathetic nervous system activating strategies, such as controlled breathing, slowing down with journalling, debriefing with a supervisor, mild cardio or aerobic exercise, emotional freedom techniques (EFT tapping) and the Heartmath Quick Coherence Technique.

“Delivering Narrative therapy is quite relieving for the practitioner who listens and draws out stories of strength and survival. It helps you get into a bit more of a flow and hold space for the client or person who is seeking help.

“If you’ve got some well-rehearsed or well-defined strategies and decision paths, that’s really important for self-care, too. Because there’s a thing called decision fatigue. When people are very stressed that can be very draining, which is another reason is why… evidence-based practices are life-saving – for the practitioners, the frontline workers and the survivors.

“People often feel guilty about doing self-care,” he says. “But I say, if you’re going to feel guilty, feel guilty about not caring for yourself. If you take yourself out of the equation, a lot of other people suffer – especially in this area of disaster support.”

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