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Ash Wednesday Bushfire Study

The Impact of Childhood Stress on Adult Health (ICSAH): Long-term follow-up of adults who were children in 1983 living in the South East of South Australia

The purpose of this study was to re-examine a cohort of 808 adults who were primary school children at the time of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia. They were part of a longitudinal study examining the impact of this disaster. A control population of 780, not involved in the disaster was also re-examined. They were recruited at the time of an earlier study as a socio demographic sample.

The specific aims of the study were to:

  • Investigate the long-term effects of psychological trauma, namely a disaster experienced in childhood, on adult psychological adjustment as defined by DSM-IV disorders.
  • To investigate the role of childhood symptoms in 1983, 1984, 1985 and family functioning on adult psychological adjustment.

Our Findings

Preliminary findings suggest that there has been minimal long-term psychological impact from the fire. Although overall, adults who were exposed to the bushfire in childhood reported more lifetime emotional problems than those who were not exposed, these differences in rates were incidental. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was more prevalent in the fire-exposed group (5.7% of participants) compared to adults from Naracoorte (2.8%), however PTSD cases resulting directly from the bushfire were low. Interestingly it was not the fire itself that predicted later problems but more so the behavioural problems exhibited in the aftermath of the fires that have the most enduring effects.

Bushfire vs. Other Trauma

Although many individuals still have vivid memories of the fires and some people remain distressed by their experience, for most, it is the other traumatic events that have occurred throughout their lives (such as motor vehicle accidents, emotional and physical neglect and abuse) that have caused the most severe long-term problems. These traumatic events are important predictors of psychological disorders in adulthood as well as other various health complaints.

The Pattern

Interestingly, we have identified a pattern whereby many people who have been adversely affected by traumatic events (such as an event in childhood, motor vehicle accident etc.) complain and present to a GP with both physical and psychological symptoms at the same time. This is despite the fact that their actual physical injury has resolved. Such a finding suggests that our body has difficulty separating our reactions into those that affect our physical health and or our psychological health, and that just because we are only feeling unwell physically does not mean we should always rule out a psychological problem as the underlying cause.
We also identified that adverse experiences occurring in childhood can lead to an increase in the utilisation of health services. This reinforces the need for early intervention in individuals who are known to have experienced childhood trauma, to prevent these individuals from having more out of pocket expenses relating to healthcare than those without previous trauma.

Trauma: Is It Always Traumatic?

Finally results from this study have led us to more closely investigate the term "trauma" and the way in which people interpret and give meaning to events that have occurred in their lives. Results from our study have shown that events considered by one person to be "traumatic" may not necessarily impact on another person at all. In fact, frequently we have found that it is the events we as researchers expect to cause the most distress that are the least stressful for the participants. This finding has received considerable attention in the literature in recent times and we hope to contribute to this growing debate by emphasising the subjective nature of adverse effects and the need to avoid a blanket approach to dealing with trauma in people's lives.

There is a Positive!

Overall however, there appears to be much strength and positive ways of coping that exist within your community. There are many individuals who have endured difficult circumstances but have integrated into the active roles that life requires without any major detrimental impact on beliefs and positive anticipations for the future. We are as keen to learn from these positive adaptations as trying to understand the factors that contribute to people's difficulties.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We are hoping to begin a new study soon focussing on the long-term outcomes and negative effects of drought in Australian rural populations. This study is still in the developmental stage and we hope to have it up and running in the next five years.

Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies

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Helen Mayo North
30 Frome Road
The University of Adelaide


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