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Wellbeing program that supported thousands of children caught up in Black Summer bushfires offers new promise for COVID-19 recovery

Hundreds of children in bushfire and flood-ravaged communities across Australia have reported positive results from a  mental wellbeing and resilience program offered in Australia for the first time, a new Save the Children report has found.
16 September 2021
Save the Children’s Journey of Hope program, which has run in 77 schools across the country since 2020, has directly helped children who lived through the Black Summer bushfires and floods, with 92% of the more than 500 students surveyed, saying they felt better after taking part.

Save the Children drew on expertise from the University of Melbourne to guide and support the evaluation of the program, including disaster resilience expert Professor Lisa Gibbs, child health and wellbeing specialist Dr Lauren Carpenter and biostatistics expert Professor Julie Simpson.

“Communities affected by disaster tend to be highly disrupted in the following months and years and children are at risk of emotional distress and mental health problems,” Professor Lisa Gibbs said. “It was really encouraging to see that children reported significantly less difficulties in their daily lives after participating in the Journey of Hope program.”

“The children also showed significant improvements in their relationships with others and in their use of positive coping strategies. In focus group discussions and interviews, the children, parents and teachers spoke about how these benefits were supporting the children’s recovery from their experiences.”

The program is already being rolled out in some schools in metropolitan Melbourne to help children learn long-term resilience and coping skills to guide them through the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Journey of Hope funding dries up, Save the Children Australia is today calling for dedicated children’s wellbeing funding in State and Federal Government disaster recovery and education budgets.

Journey of Hope was developed to respond to the children’s mental health fallout following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After the devastating Black Summer 2020 bushfires, Save the Children delivered Journey of Hope to 5000 children in pre-schools, primary and secondary schools and to adults online in the most heavily impacted regions, including Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla, Bega, Wagga Wagga, Mid Coast, New England and East Gippsland.

The Journey of Hope evaluation – being launched today – showed the program provided a safe and trusted space for children to discuss their emotions and develop positive coping strategies.

The Journey of Hope group work was crucial to this result. The evaluation showed:
  • 92% said that the group made them feel better.
  • 92% said they felt safe sharing their feelings with the group.
  • 91% said they felt listened to by the group.
  • 97% said they liked coming to the group.
A majority of students also said that they put into practice what they learned in the program and that the program made them feel better about coming to school.

Professor Lisa Gibbs said in the face of increasing climate-change induced disasters, specialist psychosocial support programs must be available to all schools.

“Schools have an important role in supporting students’ wellbeing through adversity – whether face-to-face or remotely. Participating in these kinds of programs can help children understand that their feelings and emotions are normal and contribute to classroom cultures that support recovery,” Prof Gibbs said.

“There is often a rush after disaster experiences, including pandemic restrictions, to get children back on track with academic targets, but that won’t happen unless there is also time and support for adjustment and recovery.

“There is more research that needs to be done but these initial positive findings from the Journey of Hope evaluation should encourage governments that when it comes to community recovery from climate-change induced disasters, we have appropriate social and emotional support programs available for children in Australia. Wellbeing support for children post-emergency must be prioritised in community recovery."

Save the Children’s CEO Paul Ronalds said the program has been an incredible success and governments should take note.

“We are already experiencing a national children’s mental health crisis of a scale not seen before in Australia,” Mr Ronalds said.

“As the pandemic and associated lockdowns continue, and as extreme weather events like bushfires and floods increase due to climate change, the toll on children’s mental wellbeing will be even greater.”

“Children in many of the communities where we ran Journey of Hope lived through a catastrophic bushfire emergency, followed rapidly by destructive floods and now a pandemic. Significant funding must be set aside for children’s mental health and recovery in response to these and future disasters.”


“The beauty of Journey of Hope is that it is specialised, complements existing mental health supports in schools and doesn’t place an extra burden on schools when they’re dealing with multiple crises. In fact, it gives students, teachers and even parents the space and time to process and deal with what they’re going through.”

“Children who participated in the Journey of Hope program have demonstrated their resilience, dedication and courage in the face of adversity. This has motivated all of us to ensure that these types of programs are available to all children affected by disasters. Rebuilding communities does not just mean rebuilding houses, but also resilience and strength in our future generations.”

Ulladulla Public School Assistant Principal Melinda Croan said the program was hugely popular with their students.

“Journey of Hope came to our school immediately after the bushfires and worked with all of our 750 students,” Ms Croan said.

“The facilitators were well trained which allowed our students to feel safe and listened to.  The feedback we got from students was that it was their favourite time of the week. They enjoyed being able to express themselves, the activities and the understanding that their feelings were okay.

“Parents and teachers were able to use the language and resources providing a holistic approach.”
 
NOTES FOR EDITORS

Journey of Hope is a school-based group-work intervention for children and early adolescents who have experienced a collective trauma, such as a natural hazard or disaster. This program that helps young people build resilience and develop new ways to cope with worry and anxiety in uncertain times. The program is suitable for children aged four to 18.
 
Through previous evaluations, including by the International Institute for Children’s Rights and Development, Journey of Hope has been shown to improve student social and emotional well-being, as well as knowledge and skills, by: 
  • Teaching children to recognise and manage their emotions, which builds confidence, self-esteem, and ‘I believe I can’ attitudes. 
  • Developing positive peer relationships, which help children experience a collaborative environment based on respect and understanding. 
The Journey of Hope program is tailored for four age groups: 
  • Early Years into Lower Primary – children aged 4-7
  • Middle Primary – children aged 8-10
  • Late Primary to Early High School – young people aged 11-13
  • Mid to late High School – young people aged 14-18
Journey of Hope also includes a workshop to help parents and caregivers look after themselves, so they can provide better support for the children in their care.
 
ENDS

Media contact: Angus Smith 0488 330 882 or media.team@savethechildren.org.au

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