THE first anniversary of a disaster is early days in terms of recovery. Anyone who thinks victims should be over it by then simply does not understand the process. That's the view of clinical psychologist Bob Gordon.
"People find that after a relatively short time, they can't confide in their friends and relatives any more because they just don't get it. That means they are losing their support networks when they most need them," he says.
"Then, of course, they turn to each other, but they're all needy and don't have that much to give."
For a big disaster, such as last year's Queensland floods or the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, it takes about seven years to get back on track socially, emotionally and economically. Physical effects, often irreversible and including heart disease and diabetes, may not show up till then, says Gordon, a consultant to the Red Cross and the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Plan.
The key, at every level, is calmly to find out what the people affected need, before unilaterally deciding what help to extend.Adrenalin-pumped assistance such as sending materials that are not needed, clearing houses that do not need clearing, pushing through building permits for land that is not ready and having politicians and media dramatising and sentimentalising events can worsen victims' problems.
On a personal level, survivors should be allowed to talk and talk -- and talk -- for as long as it takes.
"Listen carefully to what they're saying and ask yourself: 'What are they saying that they haven't said before, and what are they not saying that they said last time?' That's where there will be evidence that they are slowly processing it," Gordon says.
"If it is exactly the same, then they're probably showing traumatic stress and they're stuck."
Another tip is not to promise everything will be fine. "You don't reassure people by reassuring them. You reassure people by letting them know you're listening, you're with them, you're going to try to help with their problems.
"Saying 'You're brave, you'll get through this' doesn't really help."
Leaders should outline what's known and what's not, and what's being done.
"Even to say what we don't know reduces uncertainty because you put a boundary around it," he says. "Suddenly it's a developing situation rather than 'nobody knows what's going on and the government's incompetent'."