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Pharmacies offering Mental health First Aid to bushfire affected communities


A story from Moruya in New South Wales, reflecting life in September 2020

Jo McMahon lives in Moruya, on the NSW south coast and has been a pharmacist for 30 years. She recently undertook Mental Health First Aid Training provided by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.

Jo lived through the Black Summer bushfires so has first-hand experience of what many people lived through. She says pharmacists have a huge role to play in disasters.

“I know there were a lot of cranky customers because people were trying to get a few months’ worth of medication for example and they were rushing things so there were shortages and pharmacists had to ration medications.  Some people got upset at not having exactly what they wanted. So, pharmacists need to deal with people who are highly anxious,” she said. 

“We had blackouts which meant most of the doctors’ surgeries were closed so there were no GPs or access to GPs. We had holiday-makers who were trapped, usually because the road was closed and they couldn’t get out, you had people who hadn’t been able to go to the doctor to get their medication and scripts so the pharmacies were absolutely hammered.”

Jo does sessional work at three aged care facilities -IRT Moruya, IRT Dalmeny and IRT Crown Gardens in Batemans Bay. She decided to volunteer for a few days at the aged care facilities when they were under-staffed during the bushfire season. When IRT Dalmeny residents were evacuated to IRT Moruya on January 3, Jo knew most of the residents so she was able to help them settle into their new environment.

“They had to sleep in chairs, there were no rooms for them or anything, so I spent a lot of time there doing pharmacy but basically doling out meals and doing drinks,” she said.

Jo also works part-time at a local GP surgery as a pharmacist. She says people are really hurting after the fires.

“Because of the pandemic it’s as though they got overlooked. If we hadn’t had COVID, the local footy club would have put on a BBQ to raise money for the bushfire victims. There would have been a lot of community activity to support people and because people can’t congregate in a lot of the places they used to congregate in, they don’t have the same support.”

“The training is mental health first aid. It is particularly designed to enable pharmacists to identify anyone who might be in trouble,” explained Jo.

The training is designed for frontline personnel in bushfire-affected areas. Pharmacists, as the most accessible health professionals in Australia are often the first point of contact for trauma-affected communities.

“The training was very good, and thorough. It went through things like depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide risk,” said Jo. “Most pharmacists consider lifestyle issues as part of their remit and that encompasses people’s mental health which is a big issue.”

The training is being provided as part of an Australian Government Mental Health Support for Bushfire Affected Australians program. Find out more at https://my.psa.org.au/s/training-plan/a110o00000A62EM/mental-health-first-aid-bushfire-affected-australians