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Post-disaster service provision following proactive identification of children with emotional distress and depression


  • Brett M.C. McDermott,

  • Lyle J. Palmer

  • Department of Paediatrics, University of Western Australia, GPO Box D184, Perth, Western Australia 6001, Australia. Email:

  • Lyle J. Palmer, NHMRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow

  • Division of Biostatistics, Institute for Child Health Research, Department of Paediatrics, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia

Brett M.C.McDermott Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Correspondence)


Objective: Proactive, school-based psychological testing for emotional distress and depression was employed 6 months after a bushfire disaster. The service provision aim was to provide children with the greatest emotional distress the relatively limited therapeutic resources available in the post-disaster environment. Specific hypotheses were tested: that the prevalence of emotional distress and depression would be elevated 6 months post disaster; that emotional distress would be correlated with traumatic events; and that depression would be related to experiences of loss.

Method: Six months after a bushfire disaster grade 4, 5, and 6 students (n = 601) participated in screening using a test battery measuring emotional distress, depressive symptoms and trait anxiety.

Results: Twelve percent (n = 72) of children experienced severe emotional distress 6 months after the bushfire. Rates of depression were similar to rates in non-traumatised child community samples. Multivariate analysis suggested that emotional distress was significantly associated with trait anxiety, evacuation experience, the perception that parents may have died during the bushfire, and depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms were associated with total distress score, trait anxiety and perception of threat to the parents.

Conclusions: Substantial mental health morbidity was identified 6 months after a bushfire disaster. The usefulness of post-disaster service provision influenced by proactive screening is discussed and reasons for further research highlighted.