Farmer who called bushfire helpline told counsellors on holidays or sick

Lake Conjola 2539

After losing half his farm to a fire storm, Gerry McLaughlin reached out to the Federal Government’s bushfire help line only to be told the counsellors were on holidays or were away sick.

Key points:

  • Flower farmer Gerry McLaughlin lost half his property in bushfires at Lake Conjola, NSW
  • He recognised he was experiencing anxiety and needed help so called the Federal Government’s hotline
  • Mr McLaughlin was told all the counsellors were sick or on leave and waited four days for a call back

Mr McLaughlin and his partner moved to Lake Conjola on the New South Wales South Coast two years ago to start a flower farm.

On New Year’s Eve the devastating Currowan fire tore across their farm; four days later the fires retuned and half their farm was destroyed.

“I have had anxiety since December when the Currowan fire started,” Mr McLaughlin said.

External Link:

@GregHuntMP: If you are struggling with your mental health in the wake of the bushfires, please call 180 22 66 for assistance. Please reach out, get the support you need, and check in on loved ones.

“The fact that it just kept coming and coming, the fact that we fought it twice … every morning I got up and smelled smoke.

“My anxiety levels were going through the roof.”

Four days of waiting

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has repeatedly encouraged people impacted by bushfires to contact the 180 22 66 number.

Mr McLaughlin said once he realised he needed help, he called the number for mental health support but for days no one returned his call.

“I availed myself to the number. I rang. The woman said unfortunately the counsellors were on holidays or they were sick,” he said.

“I am sorry for that person if they are sick and happy for the one on holidays, but no one rang me back.

“For four days I dealt with it, until I couldn’t cope any more, and I rang Lifeline. I wasn’t suicidal, but I wasn’t coping.”

“Thank God I called Lifeline.”

Mr McLaughlin said many people in the community were suffering trauma and he wanted to make sure they had somewhere to reach out to for help.

“The idea that you can’t have a 24/7 manned number for people who are suffering trauma as a result of the fires — I think it is really important, something should be done.

“This trauma is not going to go away in the next month, or six months.

“Things will pop up, you will have memories and moments, and I don’t want people to be ashamed.”


A trauma expert is concerned counsellors who will be providing help to bushfire victims are not adequately trained. (Supplied: Gerry McLaughlin)

Department offers apology

General manager of Services Australia, Hank Jongen, said he was at a loss that as to how Mr McLaughin could have received that response.

If you or anyone you know needs help:

“I just want to apologise to Gerry. The fact that we may have contributed to additional stress at a very, very difficult time is of great concern to me,” he said.

Mr Jongen said the 180 22 66 number was operated by his department and used to access the two Federal Government payments for victims.

It is also a connection point to mental health services.

“I absolutely understand his situation and I’m very concerned about the way it was handled,” Mr Jongen said.

“But we have already referred more than 1,400 people to additional support as a part of this mental health package.

“I would still encourage people to call 180 22 66. We have trained social workers available to make the initial contact and to make referrals.”


A psychotherapist says it is very ‘un-trauma-informed’ to ask people about trauma they have experienced, like that during the Currowan fire. (Facebook: NSW Rural Fire Service (file photo))

Trauma expert warns counsellors not experienced enough

Clinical psychotherapist Elle Stübe has criticised the uncertainty of the service.

“As a trauma specialist, I am concerned to hear about Gerry’s treatment,” she said.

“It is inexcusable that someone in Gerry’s state is told that someone will call him back and that that doesn’t happen for a number of days.

“And that Gerry then has to find this resource himself at a time when he has no more resources left.”

She was sceptical of what would happen once a person was able to connect with someone on the phone after “jumping through a series of loops and hoops”.

“Is that person sufficiently trained to deal with this degree of trauma after the fires,” she said.

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Dr Stübe said it was a very high-risk situation.

“I would describe that as a kind of fragmentation that [Gerry] was going through,” she said.

“[That’s] where the load he was going through in his nervous system became too much for him to bear and he urgently needed somebody who could receive him, and receive all the feelings he was having, and to listen to him and help him regulate himself.”

Concern about counselling over phone

She also raised concerns about the broader process.

“It is entirely un-trauma-informed to ask someone about the traumas they have just experienced,” she said.

“This is, however, what is required in order to establish your eligibility for any kind of support.

“I am extremely concerned about this being undertaken on the phone, leaving the traumatised person alone once the call has ended and with whatever triggering has just occurred in recounting the traumatic event.”

Mr Hunt was contacted for comment, but referred the ABC to his department for a response.

External Link:

ABC embed: Tell us your bushfire questions