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Annie Rahilly, media officer:University of Melbourne

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The University of Melbourne is leading a long-term study into the health and wellbeing of community members affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

The study aims to capture the diverse experiences of people in rural communities across Victoria, including those directly or indirectly affected by the tragic bushfires in February 2009.
Researchers launched the study in response to a need for evidence-based research to better support the development of policy and service delivery for fire affected families and communities over time. 
Dr Lisa Gibbs of the University’s School of Population Health and McCaughey Centre said it was expected the results of the study would be applied to future policies to help communities and services with strategies to improve recovery in future catastrophes.
“We hope to establish some mental health and wellbeing strategies that individuals, communities and agencies can rely on if they ever face future natural disasters again,” Dr Gibbs said.
Titled ‘Beyond Bushfires: Community Resilience and Recovery’, the study has been funded by a five-year grant from the Australian Research Council with additional support from a number of research partners.
The study brings together a multidisciplinary team of leading international researchers with expertise in mental health, trauma, recovery, social networks, community and family health, child research, policy and emergency services.
“Our point of difference from other studies that have looked at the impact of disaster on individual mental health or post traumatic stress disorder, is our long term trajectory and emphasis on the connection between individual and community recovery,” Dr Gibbs said.
Dr Rob Gordon, a Clinical Psychologist who has worked with people in more than 25 disasters in Australia and New Zealand said the study will be invaluable to gather urgently needed evidence about the patterns of impact and recovery and the full timescale involved.   
“This information will be vital in preparing for effective support in future disasters,” he said.
Over the five-year period researchers will survey around 3000 children, adolescents and adults from about 16 communities across Victoria, which experienced varying levels of fire impact. Participants will be asked to do a phone or online survey (about 30 mins) three times over five years. A small group will be invited to do more in-depth interviews to further explore their experiences of community and recovery.
Collaborators include the Victorian Department of Health, Australian Red Cross, Centrelink, Australian Rotary Health, Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, and community groups and Primary Care Partnerships in the regions affected. 
Principal Investigator Professor Elizabeth Waters said the community partnerships in the study provided a great hope for positive outcomes for the communities.
“With partnerships large and small in the communities affected, we hope they will be able to drive the changes that are needed to promote health and wellbeing for those affected by the February 2009 Bushfires,” Professor Waters said.
This first phase of the project was trialled in the Bendigo and Darnum region in late 2011 and is now being extended to the following areas. It will including everyone living in those communities now and those who were living there in February 2009:
Bruaarong Dederang Glen Creek Gundowring
Kancoona Mudgegonga Rosewhite Running Creek
Axedale Buxton Callignee Tallarook
Dixon’s Creek Eildon Granton Kinglake Central
Kinglake Kinglake West Koornalla Marysville
Narbethong Pheasant Creek Steels Creek Taggerty
For more information about the study go to www.beyondbushfires.or... or phone 1800 020 727