how to help a friend who has been impacted by a natural disaster

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Has your friend been involved in a natural disaster?

Life changes for everyone during and after a natural disaster and we can all react and cope differently. If you know a friend who has been impacted by the bushfires, there are lots of things you can do to help, even if you have been impacted too.

How we are affected isn’t always determined by how close we are to the disaster or how recently it happened. Being exposed to media coverage, the stories of others, and the larger impact of the disaster on the community and the environment can be distressing and affect us even when we haven’t been directly affected. That’s why it can help to take a break from news and social media coverage.

Natural disasters can have a strong impact on all of us. When a friend’s life has been impacted by a natural disaster, it can be hard to know what to do or say. It can also be complicated because natural disasters typically affect a lot of people, in many different ways. So if you live near your friend, it is quite likely that your life may have been impacted by it in some way too. When you have both been impacted, or a lot of your friends have been impacted, it is important to find a balance between being there for your friend/s and looking after yourself too. There are lots of things you can do to support your friend following a natural disaster.

The following covers information about common reactions to a natural disaster, how to support a friend who has been affected by a natural disaster, and how to look after yourself when you have been affected too.

Natural disasters can be hard to cope with. People can respond in very different ways which also change over time. Our fact sheet on coping with natural disasters has a lot of information that might be helpful to understand their experience a little better, and can leave you best placed to support them.

With the support of friends, family and the broader community, young people who experience natural disasters are often able to recover, and do not experience ongoing difficulties. 


You might notice some changes in your friend in the first few weeks and months. These might include; difficulty in relationships with others, wanting to be alone, trouble sleep, changed appetite, and possibly alcohol and other drug use.

These can be common reactions and natural coping responses. However, they are linked with increased likelihood of ongoing difficulties. As a result it is helpful to try to address these early, to prevent them from becoming a pattern of coping. It’s important to build coping strategies that are better linked to recovery, and can help people return to living the life they want.

Finding the words to start a conversation isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what kind of help you can offer.

Remember, you don’t need to ‘fix’ things. Don’t push them to talk about the natural disaster or its impact on them. Instead, let them know you are there for them if they do want to talk about it.

If they don’t open up, don’t take it personally or think you can’t help. Simply showing you care and that you have their back can give your friend strength and hope. This also tells them that you’re someone they can talk to if they do decide to open up more later on.

If they do open up, it can be really helpful to reassure them that it is OK to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. You might suggest they visit the headspace website to get some tips on how to look after themselves. It is also a good idea to suggest that they find a trusted adult to talk to about things if it is all feeling a bit much. Remember, you’re their mate and not their counsellor.  As a mate, you can offer a lot in being there for them, doing some things you used to do together to try and get a bit of normality and routine back in their life..

What can I say to help my friend after a natural disaster?

It’s important to encourage your friend to get further help. You can say things like:

  • "Have you talked to anyone else about this? It’s great you’ve talked to me, but it might be good to get advice and support from a health worker. There’s no right way to feel or respond. It’s OK to feel how you’re feeling” Statements like this can help your friend to feel listened to and that their experience is OK or valid. Try not to dismiss what your friend might be saying.
  • “You don’t have to talk about it (e.g., the bushfires) if you don’t want to, but if you do, I’m here for you. It might be that you might just want to hang out or have someone around and that’s fine.” Never push someone to talk about a traumatic event. This can be harmful.
  • “I know you’re not feeling great now, but with the right support, you can get through this.”
  • “Sometimes I feel pretty overwhelmed too. It would be great for you to find an adult you trust who can help you with this stuff more than I can”
  • "There are some great websites you can check out to get more information. Have you heard of headspace or ReachOut or Beyond Blue - Issues for young people?"
  • "Did you know that you can get free and confidential support online or over the phone from places like eheadspaceKids Helpline and Lifeline? All of these services are anonymous and can help you figure out what’s going on for you and where to go for the right support."


What if your friend doesn’t want any help?

Your friend may need time and space before they want to get help, or they might not feel they need any help. You may need to be patient with your friend and try to not judge them or get frustrated if you can’t get through to them at first. Give them time. It might be that they just need some time to process things.


If you‘ve been exposed to a natural disaster or other traumatic events in the past (e.g., other natural disasters, physical or sexual assault, a car accident), it can be tricky to support your friends.  

You may notice that listening to other’s experiences might bring up feelings or emotions for yourself The sorts of things that you might notice include more clear  (e.g., you are feeling very distressed) or more subtle signs (e.g., you are feeling increasingly disconnected, numb, or doing things you wouldn’t normally do).

You may also find yourself comparing your reaction to the event to theirs. There is no right way or single way in which people respond to a natural disaster. So the chances are, you may well be reacting differently and that’s OK. Try not to get caught up in comparing your reactions, this is unlikely to be helpful for either of you. You may be feeling angry, scared, relieved, numb, shocked or any number of other emotions. These are all perfectly normal reactions to a not normal situation.

You might be struggling to cope too, and you need to look after your own needs while also trying to be there for your friend.

To manage these things, it is a good idea to:

  • Pay close attention to how you’re feeling and calling in the support of a trusted adult if you’re feeling overwhelmed by trying to support a friend
  • Practice some things you can say to set boundaries if you are worried about them, but also feeling very overwhelmed yourself. For example, “I want you to know that I’m here for you. I am not in the best place to talk a lot about it at the moment but maybe we can support each other just by being around and doing some things we used to do together. It is really important that you do have someone to talk who you can trust, maybe I can help you figure out who that is.”
  • Take some time to read more information about coping after a natural disaster to get more tips on how to look after yourself

When should I get help for my friend?

It is pretty normal to experience very strong emotions after a traumatic event like a natural disaster. They will normally lessen at around 6 weeks. If your friend is still noticing big changes in their emotions or is finding it hard to   do usual daily activities after this time, it is a good idea to let someone know. This isn’t the wrong thing to do, although it can be difficult because you might feel like your friend won’t open up to you again. If you decide to tell someone, try to let your friend know that you’re planning on doing this first and encourage them to get involved in the discussion.

If you think your friend is at risk of harming themselves or somebody else, you need to seek help straight away, even if they ask you not to. If your friend needs urgent help you can call 000. You could also ask someone you trust, like a parent or teacher for help. There’s a chance your friend might not be happy about this at first, but remind them it’s only because you care about them. In the long run, they’ll usually understand why you got someone else involved.  


For more information, to find your nearest headspace centre or for online and telephone support, visit eheadspace.



The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

CRG Approved 11 Feb 2020

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