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Mental health in the aftermath of disaster

Jan Kupec at the Balmoral Lane demolition

Jan Kupec at the Balmoral Lane demolition

25 November 2015 - Whether it be floods, cyclones, bushfires or earthquakes, many of us have experienced the trauma of a man-made or natural disaster, or at least know someone who has. 

The emotional rollercoaster of rebuilding and dealing with loss can often take a heavy toll on one's mental health and wellbeing. As Dr Jan Kupec, Aurecon Technical Director for Ground Engineering and Resilience explains, it is necessary to seek support. 

During Safe Work Month in October 2015, Jan Kupec travelled across Brisbane and Darwin to speak to staff and clients about managing health and wellbeing in a disaster situation. Jan drew from his own experiences working in Aurecon’s Christchurch office and his role with the New Zealand Fire Service Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team.

As an engineering specialist and member of USAR, Jan’s primary responsibility is to assist with the location, rescue and initial medical stabilisation of victims trapped in confined spaces following the partial or full structural collapse of one or more buildings. Through this role, Jan was instrumental to rescue efforts during the Christchurch 2011 Earthquake, as well as the Japan combined earthquake and tsunami disaster that followed only one month later.

“After the New Zealand and Japan tragedies, we realised just how important mental health and wellbeing is,” Jan said.

“As a disaster unfolds, humans tend to go into survival mode, doing what needs to be done. Once a threat has passed we can often stay in this mode for a while, which is completely normal. However, then we often go through a period of feeling down and being depressed. This, too, is normal.”

After months of working long hours in extremely harsh conditions and losing his own home in the Christchurch Earthquakes, Jan realised he needed to take responsibility for his own wellbeing and that of his staff. 

“In terms of work-life balance, I always told my staff to do what I say, not do as I do.  But then I saw that I had 50 days annual leave saved up. So I took a five week holiday to Hawaii with my family so that I could be mentally ready to lead my Christchurch team when I returned.”

Speaking to the ABC Tropical North Radio earlier this month, Jan described how a little effort can go a long way in improving health and wellbeing.

“People want to go home in the end to their families. Ensuring that actually happens doesn’t necessarily need heavy legislation. [It requires] a responsible employee and employer to actually work together to determine how to make something safe.”

Jan’s experience reminds us that mental wellbeing and physical health are equally important. Seeking help and taking time for yourself is not a weakness, but necessary maintenance.

As Jan explains, “after the New Zealand earthquakes, we as a community are now more resilient. So while a disaster is catastrophic, with the help of your colleagues and the community, you can come out of the experience a stronger person.”

Aurecon is committed to fostering a safe work environment that breaks down the stigma of mental illness. Our Mind Matters program offers staff and their family free, confidential and professional counselling services.

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