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Cheryl Critchley
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Community members trained as coaches will work with people affected by South Australia’s catastrophic 2015 Pinery bushfire, in a pilot study to test an emotional recovery program for trauma survivors. 

University of Melbourne researchers hope the program will become the “gold standard” for emotional recovery after bushfires, earthquakes, war and other disasters.

Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the Prince’s Charities Australia, will be leading the study, working closely with program partners Country SA Primary Health Network, Northern Health Network (NHN), and the Australian Red Cross (Red Cross).

Coaches have been recruited from local health and community services and disaster recovery workers, who have on-the-ground experience with their community. They have been trained in the specifically developed program - interPAR (International Program Promoting Adjustment and Resilience) which will give them the skills to help people struggling to cope after disaster.

Director of Research at Phoenix Australia, Associate Professor Meaghan O’Donnell, said coaching using the interPAR program was a promising approach to helping people experiencing moderate, ongoing stress, anxiety, grief, anger and depression.

“There’s often a gap in services for people who might not need intensive clinical intervention for severe mental health problems, but would nonetheless recover faster with some well timed, practical and emotional support,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“The idea behind training coaches from within the community is that in many disasters, you will see a number of trusted community members come to the fore in helping others. This program gives them some tools to support them in that.”

Funded by the federal Department of Health, InterPAR (International Program Promoting Adjustment and Resilience) aims to reduce distress and improve quality of life for people affected by disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes and war trauma.

“These difficulties often present in the medium to long term after disaster, and it’s important to address them to improve quality of life and prevent the development of serious, debilitating mental health conditions,” Dr O’Donnell said.

 “This emotional recovery program, designed to help disaster survivors develop skills to manage their stress, feel more in control, and look after their relationships.”

Once interPAR is shown to be effective, it is expected to become a gold standard protocol with potential to be used more widely, with emergency services workers, military personnel, and people affected by other traumatic experiences.

National Recovery Coordinator at Australian Red Cross, Shona Whitton, said volunteers and staff see many people who require some extra support to get back on their feet.

“While we can provide initial support, we haven’t had the specialised tools to know how to help individuals who require additional support,” Ms Whitton said.

CEO of the Northern Health Network, Sageran Naidoo, said early intervention of this type would enable some people to avoid the need for intensive clinical services.

Ms Janine Kirk, CEO of The Prince’s Charities Australia, said understanding the impact of treatment is the missing link in providing effective treatment to trauma sufferers.

“The Prince’s Charities Australia is proud to support this ground breaking work that will help lead the way to better outcomes for individuals and communities,” she said.