Responding to community trauma and family violence after natural disasters

by Jacqui Watt

“Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities.” – Judith Herman

Amid the tragedy of the bushfires spreading through New South Wales, Queensland and now Victoria, there is perhaps an understandable unease in discussing the aftermath and long-term impacts on the affected communities. This is especially true when it comes to how these disasters impact levels of family violence in that community.

Research into family violence in disaster and post-disaster regions of Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand show similar increases in intensity and volume of family violence, as well as new family violence reported in previously non-violent relationships.

The temptation to minimise these findings in the context of enormous human tragedy can be damaging to women and children, but also to men. Responding to communities requires a comprehensive trauma-informed strategy that recognises the economic, social and gendered aspects of how disasters are experienced.

One of the most striking findings from Debra Parkinson’s research into the increase in family violence in the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires is that “community members, police, case managers, trauma psychologists and family violence workers empathised with traumatised and suffering men… and encouraged women to wait it out.” An environment that fosters the idea that women’s needs and women’s trauma are subordinated to absorb the violence of men in trauma does not have the adequate systems in place to encourage healing for the men and women who need it.

The extent of community trauma for those impacted by disaster should be understood as a long-term and complex challenge that requires sustained and integrated responses. Research undertaken in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami recognised that “disasters alter physical spaces and damage social and economic functions of communities…[that] create extreme stress by challenging fundamental assumptions about the world.”

In this environment, the aftermath of disaster can exacerbate pre-existing conceptions about perceived gender roles, responsibilities and entitlements of men that are shared more broadly in wider culture.

A spike in family violence after disaster does not mean that natural disasters are a cause of family violence, but in the face of displacement, loss of community identity, injury or even the death of loved ones, exculpatory narratives for men who use violence can be common. As Parkinson says, “crisis conditions do not cause the abuse nor do they cause men to lose control. Indeed, some men purposely use such situational factors as disaster to excuse or justify their behaviour.”

At NTV we speak every day with men who use family violence. They are otherwise ‘normal’ everyday men who have absorbed a set of gendered social beliefs about their roles, responsibilities and entitlements as men.

But they are frequently men in pain, experiencing trauma, often with multiple exacerbating issues. None of these excuse his violent behaviour, nor is it helpful to him or his partner to collude or minimise the violence he inflicts. But when people are in pain, they need help and it is a profoundly unjust society that places conditions on who does and who does not deserve help. That’s why we do what we do. 

We recognise men’s pain in disaster-affected communities, but if we do so at the expense of women and children, through denying or minimising, then we are not protecting that community from compounding trauma. Nor do we protect men by encouraging the silence of women who experience violence, we deny them the help they need.

When police, services and community groups side with men out of sympathy, they do so at the expense of the traumatised women and children in that community. When we fail to provide adequate services for men in these communities, we fail men, but importantly we are again failing women and children. Training available on gender and disaster for community groups in disaster struck regions is an essential component of managing family violence after the events. .

Communities with grave and serious survival priorities are not equipped to deal with the long-term repercussions of tragic events on their own. Recognising that the consequences of tragedy do not end when the fires subside, when the floods are cleared or when buildings are restored requires a reimagining of how we can integrate training, family violence services and men’s work into the primary emergency response.

I don’t have the solutions and no one person or organisation does, but a coordinated evidence-based approach that encompasses a range of responses is crucial if we are going to take this seriously and protect the most vulnerable in post-disaster periods.

Given the pattern of results from studies relating to this phenomenon and the harsh realities of climate change related temperature rises, the frequency and intensity of bushfire in every state is likely to increase.

When we don’t ensure essential services for women in aftermath of disaster, women and children suffer. If we don’t ensure essential services for men at these times, again women and children suffer. Returning to the Herman quote at the beginning of this piece, women impacted by post-disaster family violence are made to feel powerless through an “overwhelming force” once from disaster then through atrocity.

If you need help addressing your use of family violence, our counsellors are trained to support men. Call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7.

Jacqui Watt is CEO of No To Violence. Since 2015 Jacqui has led NTV through transformational change, doubling the size of the organisation and building credibility as a national voice leading best practice in men’s family violence interventions. NTV is credited with establishing standards and training for individuals and organisations working to end men’s use of family violence. This is Jacqui’s third CEO role with previous peak roles advocating for community housing.    Jacqui has worked in the fields of alcohol and drugs, mental health, disability, social housing and social enterprise.