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Depression sets in for flood victims as clean-up and insurance battles continue

By Elloise Farrow-Smith, Joanne Shoebridge and Samantha Turnbull, Wednesday June 14, 2017 - 16:34 EST
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A couple pictured in Lismore during floods that inundated the northern New South Wales in March 2017. - ABC

Incessant rain, battles with insurance companies, and constant cleaning are some of the issues leading to depression among flood victims in northern New South Wales.

It has been 11 weeks since major floods hit communities throughout the Tweed, Lismore, Byron, Ballina, Richmond Valley, Clarence and Kyogle regions, and this week has seen further rainfalls of more than 300mm in some of those areas.

Murwillumbah-based steel fabricator Mick Williams said the had triggered major anxiety for him and others in the Tweed Valley.



"I was lying in bed and woke up to the sound of this really heavy rain and I actually had a panic attack," Mr Williams said.

"Adrenalin started going and I got hot and all sweaty.

"I was thinking 'this doesn't feel real good' and I was trying to go back to sleep and unable to do it.

"I was talking to another friend of mine and he said 'how are you going?' and I told him and he said 'don't worry, Mick you are not alone — we're all going through the same thing'." 

Mr Williams said he had also been struggling with depression after losing almost everything at his South Murwillumbah business.

He said his insurance company had denied his two claims, one for contents and another for building damage, after an assessor told him the damage was caused by a flood as opposed to a storm.

"I've had no luck, I've been treated with apparent disdain by the company," Mr Williams said.

"The vast majority of businesses around here have been denied insurance claims and I'm a paltry amount compared to a lot of businesses who have torn up millions of dollars.

"My opinion is the insurance companies made their minds up straight away and weren't going to listen to what we had to say."



Insurance disputes worsen anxiety

The NSW Small Business Commissioner Robyn Hobbs said she had spoken to at least 100 business owners who had experienced similar problems to Mr Williams and she would be passing on their details to the Financial Ombudsman Service of Australia.

"Many insurance matters have still not been resolved and small businesses don't actually have an enormous amount of cash flow, so if we can't get small business owners back on their feet sooner the people they employ will be affected as well," Ms Hobbs said.

"I think what I also see is inconsistency in decision-making in insurance companies.

"I have a number of businesses, six in one place with six different insurance companies and they're all being treated in different ways — why should that be so?

"What I'm seeing now is an opportunity to bring in someone if people have been denied their claims and we're working with the Financial Ombudsman Service of Australia and they will review any cases I refer to them."

Red Cross consultant psychologist Rob Gordon has worked with victims of natural disasters across Australia and said it was common for the full effects of an incident to be felt months later.

"They're often just beginning to find out what the true impact is, the obvious physical impact is only the beginning — financial consequences and the way life is disrupted come later," Mr Gordon said.

He also said insurance woes often worsened anxiety and depression.

"It's a massive blow and a very common problem with floods because the problem is when people take out insurance they don't read the fine print and there can be arguments about how the flood happened," Mr Gordon said.

"What I would urge for people to do is to seek out information and get involved with insurance council advisors who are independent of companies and talk to various recovery agencies — don't just keep it to yourself.

"People who use the systems and use the services and advice do much better and do it quicker and easier.

"Most of the time we can deal with life's problems ourselves, and people pride themselves on being able to do this, but I'd say be proactive and get out and use the services mobilised for you."



Weather acts as a 'trigger'

Mr Gordon also said it was common for flood victims to be triggered by erratic weather.

"A trauma is a shattering of assumptions that help frame our world and it's like an emotional injury and it takes time to recover," he said.

"The only way to really heal that is to go through a number of weather events and have the flood not happen and to start to re-establish a sense that rain does not equal flood.

"Something that can help that is to take more notice of the details of weather forecasts and weather maps and so on and to try to learn what the conditions are that produce floods.

"I'd also say to people 'recognise your anxiety'… if we create these links between high anxiety and external signals we get trigger events and every time the rain falls you'll be in an unpleasant state."

Mr Williams said he had followed Mr Gordon's advice in recognising his mental health issues.

"It's been a real battle, this is the first time I've been through anything like this, it's knocked me really badly," he said.

"My wife and I spent weeks hosing and cleaning and washing, trying to salvage what I could and the vast majority of it has been destroyed.

"I'll be 66 in July and I was looking forward to retirement, all of a sudden that got taken away from me, and then the insurance company came and smashed me for six.

"It's been pretty unpleasant, I've been feeling battered, bruised and a bit sorry for myself, but I was able to recognise the signs and I've done something about it."


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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