New role recognises mental health impacts of disasters and public health emergencies

From bushfires, floods, drought and pandemics to large-scale industrial accidents, terrorism-related incidents, economic crises and threats to national security, these events can take a heavy psychological toll on those involved.


With this in mind, Phoenix Australia has created a new position within the organisation and appointed Alex Howard as Director, Disaster and Public Health Emergencies.

Alex, a clinical psychologist at Phoenix Australia for the past ten years, has worked with emergency service and military personnel, traumatic injury patients, disaster-impacted communities and the health professionals who support them. She has contributed to a range of service development and training projects and has taken an active role in growing and contributing to Phoenix Australia’s initiatives that are related to disaster and public health emergencies.

“I have a very strong interest in furthering our understanding of the mental health impacts of disasters and public health emergencies, especially how different groups are impacted, so we can better prepare and respond to these events,” says Alex.

“We know most people recover by drawing on their own strategies, natural coping resources and support. But some people go on to develop longer-lasting mental health impacts like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, and there are broader consequences that people need to deal with, too. In a natural disaster, for example, this can relate to rebuilding, managing insurance claims and loss of financial security.”

Alex says the new role will harness the different areas of Phoenix Australia’s expertise – research, policy and service development, and training and workforce development.

“It brings together those critical areas, and the experience and breadth of the work we do, to focus on these large-scale events. The focus is two-fold: on helping organisations, communities and government agencies to prepare for emergencies, and helping them to respond quickly when disasters occur or as new issues emerge,” says Alex.

“In the case of a pandemic like COVID-19, Phoenix Australia’s focus may be looking at how an organisation can equip its workforce to cope with the mental health impacts of COVID. In the case of bushfire, our expertise can help a fire-impacted community or organisation identify what should be in place so when the next bushfire occurs a community can be better ready to respond.”

The events of 2020 have highlighted the importance of Phoenix Australia’s work in the disasters and public health emergencies space and the relevance of Alex’s new role.

The devastating bushfires of 2019-2020, floods, ongoing drought and COVID-19 have underscored the need for government departments, local authorities, communities and health practitioners to be equipped to manage the mental health effects of such events.

“I have worked with many people who have experienced trauma and I’m always struck by how resilient people are, so I know there is hope and that people can recover,” says Alex.

“But improvements can be made in how we support people impacted by trauma and how we prepare organisations to better support a workforce at risk of being impacted by trauma. The positive factor is that organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the mental health effects of disasters and public health emergencies and we can help them manage that.”

To learn more about Alex’s new role, or how we can help organisations better prepare and respond to large-scale emergencies, contact Phoenix Australia.

How Phoenix Australia is supporting communities impacted by the Black Summer bushfires

Referred to unofficially as the ‘Black Summer’, the 2019-2020 fires swept through parts of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland. More than 3,500 homes and more than 18.5 million hectares of land were destroyed. Tragically, at least 34 people died.

Events like this cause more than physical and financial damage, they can also lead to a raft of negative psychological reactions, which is why the Australian Government launched the Mental Health Supports for Bushfire Affected Australians package. As part of this initiative, Phoenix Australia has been engaged to deliver a suite of training to frontline workers, to help them better support community members and colleagues affected by the bushfires across Australia.

“Last summer’s bushfires were unprecedented and extremely traumatic for communities and the frontline workers who supported them at the time and ever since,” said Minister for Health, The Hon Greg Hunt MP, who recently launched the project.

“This training is incredibly important in helping those workers recognise the signs of trauma and provide evidence-informed care – not only to help the emotional wellbeing of the people in their teams and communities, but themselves as well.”

Alex says the training developed by Phoenix Australia has been designed specifically for emergency services personnel, and general practitioners and their practice staff to enhance their ability to support the recovery of community members from the bushfires.

“It will also promote their own resilience and psychological recovery from the bushfires and support the resilience and wellbeing of their teams and organisations,” says Alex.

The bushfire training can be delivered online or face-to-face and is available to more than 2,000 emergency services personnel and GPs and their staff who live or work in communities affected by the 2019-2020 fires. The evidence-informed program has already received many expressions of interest.