Paul Valent

Paul Valent

Consultant liaison psychiatrist, psychotherapist, traumatologist,
Co-founder and past president Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies,

Keep us informed, and we will cope

March 25, 2020

Last week – though it feels longer ago, because in crises time expands – the bubble burst.

Precisely when the new reality dawned differs for each of us. For some it may have been the scenes of crowds being turned back from the Grand Prix. For others, the wild vacillations of the stock market, or the mad panic buying of toilet paper. But by the time this week dawned we were all living in a new world, one where comparisons to the Great Depression and the Apocalypse suddenly seemed less hyperbolic.

Adapting successfully to this new world is challenging, but not beyond us. And key to doing so is information.

Accurate and timely information about how the world has changed, how it will change, and how we need to adapt will help prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering.

Thankfully, that information is available. Unprecedented as these events seem, we have in fact seen their like before. And despite the many deaths that have occurred and are yet to come, this is more a disaster than the Apocalypse.

Some of our responses so far have been disappointing, but it’s important to recognise that they are typical of what is called the “pre-impact phase” of disasters. Typically, this is when initial denial can morph into panic and end-of-life imaginings as the reality begins to set in.

Disasterology – yes, it’s a real word (it means the study of disasters and the psychology and behaviours associated with them) – tells us that the key antidote to that cycle of denial and panic is reliable information.

One of the key lessons learnt from the disaster that was the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 was that the large death toll was due to a lack of leadership and poor communication.

In the more recent bushfires – so quickly pushed to the back of the mind, though their consequences are still being deeply felt – information and communication were vastly improved, with the result that despite the increase in severity and range of the fires the death toll was far smaller.

The key components of the information we need now are honesty, timeliness, factuality, unambiguity, and detail. It is also critical that in order for people to follow directions and make the sorts of sacrifices that may be called for, they must trust that their leadership genuinely cares for all, especially the most vulnerable. After some early stumbles, Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears to have grasped this.

But communication is a two-way street, and for information to be useful it must be processed correctly by the recipients.

To that end it is crucial to avoid information overload, rumours, and uninformed opinion.  This is a time to restrict our news intake to known and reliable sources, such as this masthead and the websites of the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation.

Some people will crave specific information: how to care for children, the elderly, and the sick; how to access this or that help; whether, how, and how much to batten down the hatches; how to ensure essential resources – such as food and, yes, toilet rolls – without becoming one of those crazy prepper people.

Information needs to be comprehensive and regularly updated, and it needs to address specific anxieties in order to prevent waste of energy and antisocial responses.

The recent and widely reported panic buying, for instance, harks back to civil unrest and wartime, when these items became genuinely scarce. The crucial information that this crisis is different, that Australia has plenty of such items, came too late. Hopefully now people have got the message at last that it was panic buying, not shortages, that produced those empty shelves.

Clear information, and its effective communication, will help us to maintain perspective during this crisis. It will help us to maintain the routines of sleep, rest, activity, hygiene and medication so vital to our health, both physical and mental.

Clear, accurate and consistent  information will also help us prepare for what comes next – the impact phase.

This is when things get truly serious and we have to contend with an actual rather than merely predicted rise in infections, the death of people we know, the possibility of ourselves being infected and all that might come from that.

Later still will come the recovery and post-disaster phases.

That seems impossibly far off, but even now there are glimmers of hope. Previously polluted skies above China and Italy have cleared due to the temporary shutdown of manufacturing. Some political leaders have had a reality check forced upon them, one that might just linger into the future. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that they might now see the value in paying respect to science rather than vested interests in a whole range of areas.

When this is over, we will be battle-weary. But we will also carry with us the resurgence of energy, activity, and creativity forged in the heat of crisis.

Our best information tells us that this disaster will pass, and the great majority of us will escape unharmed. There are tough days ahead, but the world will not end.

Paul Valent has been a pioneer in disasterology and traumatology in Australia. He was lead author in the Red Cross pamphlet used in Australia and internationally Coping with a Major Personal Crisis, available on the Red Cross web site.

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