For people affected by trauma from disasters, psychosocial support often focuses on overcoming the incapacitating effects of trauma, such as post-traumatic stress (PTS). This appears to generally apply whether those affected by trauma are individuals, volunteers or professionals who experience direct or vicarious trauma or both.
In contrast, little, if any, attention is given to trauma response that is capacity enhancing: the formally recognized, yet seldom discussed, experience of post-traumatic growth (PTG).
What is Post-traumatic Growth?
Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995) demonstrated that people commonly report that trauma can positively transform their sense of self, relationships with others, and appreciation of life, while providing new opportunities and fostering spiritual growth.
More informally, PTG alludes to the strengths people have and can develop as a consequence of their reaction to trauma. Post-traumatic growth is one of the many faces of trauma response a person may experience and exists alongside responses such as post-traumatic stress.
Equity in Trauma Response
Disaster recovery efforts typically assume that the impact of trauma is locality-based. For example, after the Victorian 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, psychosocial support was extensively provided to people in geographically affected communities, with localised services focused on supporting those experiencing post-traumatic stress and other adjustment difficulties.
As a result of locality-based models, people who live beyond the geographic boundaries of the disaster area but who nevertheless experience trauma from the disaster, may be at risk of inadequate provision of trauma support, or even exclusion from disaster response support.
The first and primary aim of this research is to re-theorise understandings of post-disaster recovery experiences, by examining the role of post-traumatic growth in recovery.
The second aim is to influence future psychosocial support services through establishing PTG-focused resources that can be widely and rapidly disseminated.
With these goalposts in mind, the project seeks to:-
- Promote the value of experiential expertise and mobilize the people’s voice by gathering and disseminating first-hand accounts and examples of post-traumatic growth.
- Increase awareness and understanding of the experience of both decline and growth as responses to trauma.
- Identify critical issues affecting health and wellbeing, and cultures of support in the post-disaster experience.
- Respond to the inherently resource challenged nature of disaster/trauma recovery systems, aiming to impact upon national service systems, to ensure more inclusive and responsive disaster-recovery services are developed.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
Through interviews with Black Saturday bushfire-involved people with a diverse range of fire experiences and involvement, this survivor-initiated and informed study explores the question: ‘How do people understand their experiences of post-traumatic growth (PTG) after the Black Saturday bushfires?’
By looking at trauma reaction through the ‘capacity focused’ lens of post-traumatic growth, the research seeks to advance practical and theoretical understandings of trauma responses that people involved in disasters can experience.
The study participants are people connected with the Black Saturday bushfires in personal and professional capacities. They are from rural, regional and urban localities. Participant location is purposefully broader than flame zones to reflect that people experiencing trauma impact from the bushfires, including potentially also experiencing post-traumatic growth, can reside anywhere.
The project specifically recognizes that PTG can be experienced along with ongoing negative trauma impacts. The interviewees identified with, and exposed, this duality. PTG conversations may provide an alternate language for exploring trauma. A strengths- based approach to trauma response may enable people to engage with post-disaster supports in new ways. Further, it may provide an alternate language and pathway for identification of people who are at risk of poorer mental health outcomes.
The Black Saturday Post-traumatic Growth Project Team: Assoc. Prof. Louise Harms, Rhonda Abotomey, Assoc. Prof. Barbara Bolt, Assoc. Prof. Robyn Woodward-Kron, Dr David Rose, Dr Jenny Waycott.
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 About the Melbourne Social Equity Institute
The Melbourne Social Equity Institute supports interdisciplinary research across the full spectrum of life including health, law, education, housing, work and transport, and their intersections with gender, disability, mental health and more. The Institute brings together researchers from across the University of Melbourne, government and the community to identify the unjust practices that arise at these intersections and work towards finding ways to ameliorate disadvantage.
 Tedeschi, R., & Calhoun, C. (1995). Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. London: SAGE Publications.