Counsellors, psychologists and social workers have borne the brunt of the emotional impacts of the last two and a half years on the Mid Coast, with the bushfires in November 2019, the floods in March 2021, and the COVID pandemic an ever-present part of life since March 2020.
And they are dropping like flies as a result, with many therapists leaving the profession for good.
I sat down for a chat with a counsellor from the Mid Coast, who does not wish to be identified for fear of her clients thinking they are burning her out. We'll call her Joan for the purposes of this story. We talked about the impacts that the events of the last few years have had on people, and the bigger picture of what it means for our community. And for the counselling profession itself.
Joan says she is exhausted.
"I didn't want to go back after the end of last year. I was just done," she says.
"I didn't want to see people and didn't want to talk to people. I didn't want to carry the weight of their suffering. I'm so tired of the suffering. There's no space for your own, really, because so many people are suffering."
For Joan, the deluge started in October 2019.
"That was the first client who had their property burnt down.
"And a lot of these people are people who already had a significant trauma history, and then you've got to see them walk in and their face is just ashen and they say, 'it's all gone'. So they've already got that, and then they've got the fires, and people losing their homes.
I didn't want to go back after the end of last year. I was just done.
"That was November, December, moving into January, and in March we're locked down, and for a while there none of us were doing face to face, either. Businesses were failing, nobody knew where any of this was going.
"It was very dark for some people, and it was also quite crazy at the same time.
"Then March last year it was floods, and now people are having flashbacks - the dead horses, pushing water out the back door, hearing the sounds, the smells," Joan said. At the time of talking the Manning was again receiving moderate to major flood warnings.
"And God knows what's going to happen when we get a hot summer - you'll get that first whiff of hot eucalyptus and you'll be starting to ask what's going on."
She has seen clients who have lost their homes in the Black Summer bushfires, people who have suffered through the floods. Many of these people were already her clients.
She has also had to deal with people's beliefs about COVID and vaccination developed through misinformation.
"The sheer weight of the anger, sometimes directed at me, but just directed at the world in general, it was so draining," Joan says.
"And the disconnect - clients I haven't seen face to face for two years. They haven't left their little bubble. I get them on visual and I can see that they're getting more overweight and more unwell. I worry."
The sheer weight of the anger, sometimes directed at me, but just directed at the world in general, it was so draining.
Joan says while the fires and floods were certainly distressing and caused trauma for some people, in the main those events and the resulting stress were the catalyst for exposing bigger problems.
During the height of the bushfires, Joan received "random" calls from people who were having panic attacks, and didn't know what was happening to them.
"Acute stress disorder is what we all had," she said, adding it was pretty normal under the circumstances.
"Some people might have gone off and seen therapists. I suspect not as many as anyone thinks. I think more probably what happened is all those little holes in your life - this was the last straw. This was the bit you couldn't hold it together anymore.
"Trauma's not just (the immediate threat). What happens when you get these natural disasters, and I suppose a pandemic is a natural disaster, is that it finds all the cracks and gaps in your life, all the little weaknesses. Maybe you're relationship is not as tight as it was, or maybe your financial situation is a little bit precarious - it finds all of those, and it just knocks it apart. So now you're hanging on by your nails.
"And we make a big deal - we go 'bushfire recovery! Here's a bunch of counsellors! We're all going to counsel you out of your trauma! Here you go! That's all you need! Why don't we just talk about the flames?' And you think, why don't we talk about our broken family, or why don't we talk about the fact that I've started using again ... it's an accumulation of that.
"That's one of the things people don't often understand about trauma.
"It's something that became very clear to me (working for a specific service). I'd spend a lot of time counselling people about what happened on that date, that incident, but it's what happened around it. That's much more important."
"You're probably going to spend more time on your baggage than (the incident).
Reflecting on our region's recent disasters we can't help thinking about what is happening in Lismore. Right now it has been reported that more than 3000 homes are uninhabitable, which will cause a housing crisis, and we ponder on the housing crisis in our own area.
When homes are destroyed by fire or flood, it is the home owner who receives the insurance payout (if they are insured). However, if the house is rented, the landlord receives the insurance and the renters are the ones who are left with nothing.
That's exactly what happened here (in the March 2021 floods), Joan says.
"I was seeing the impact. I was seeing clients who were trying to get handouts, feed for their animals, and there would be this unsubtle hierarchy of 'these are the farmers, and they're in need'.
"There are so many layers. After COVID you've got all these people from Sydney and Melbourne buying up properties (in rural and regional areas) and now, the peripatetic, the people who were making do in caravan and motel accommodation, and we know that's not happening anymore don't we? Because they got flooded out.
"The insurance was putting people up in motels, so the people who were living in motels and caravans before that, because they were already at the bottom of the pecking order, get moved downstream (so to speak), so now we've got a huge homelessness issue.
You've got people who's entire business and livelihood have just disappeared in smoke, on top of everything else they've ever had to deal with, and they are just lost, they don't know who they are, they don't know what they are doing.
"Every time I get a client who's got a notice to vacate you just think, fingers crossed. There's nowhere to rent, rents are going up, and landlords are turning (houses) over.
"We're still not seeing the big picture. Bushfires burnt out a lot of properties, but it also shifted a lot of people off. The insurances agencies were paying over the dollar for temporary housing for people while they were waiting for their new house to be built, repaired, whatever. It just kept pushing this group further and further down.
"You've got people who's entire business and livelihood have just disappeared in smoke, on top of everything else they've ever had to deal with, and they are just lost, they don't know who they are, they don't know what they are doing. And the floods come in, so there's not even a chance to recover from that.
"It's tiring watching people who, through no fault of their own, are just battling it out," Joan says.
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