From an extreme bushfire season to living through a pandemic, 2020 has been a challenging year for Victorians.
Starting with tragedy followed by uncertainty and social isolation, it is as important as ever to reach out and connect with others.
September 10 marked R U OK? Day, which encourages starting conversations with others and offering support. It also serves as a reminder that it is okay not to be okay.
On the national day of action, The Courier spoke with the Country Fire Authority's Peer Support Coordinator for District 15, Marie Bedggood.
Every year CFA members respond to confronting and potentially traumatic incidents - house fires, bushfires causing property loss and car accidents resulting in serious injury or death.
In a volunteer role in which individuals are exposed to these incidents which could impact their mental health, peer support is part of a range of wellbeing initiatives within the CFA, including the 24/7 Wellbeing Support Line and Chaplaincy Program.
Ms Bedggood coordinates a team of six other Peers - all volunteers who are active within brigades across the district.
While she said brigades were very proactive about looking after their members, Peers were there as "psychological first responders" and to provide practical assistance to individuals, brigades and their families during or following an emergency incident.
"Sometimes what firefighters face can be quite confronting and depending on what other stresses we are carrying at the time, some people can be affected by that," Ms Bedggood, who has been a Peer for many years, said.
Highly trained in psychological first aid, the volunteers are on-call if required - whether in the early hours of the morning or at night.
There are more than 170 Peers across the state, with many of them deployed to major fires around Victoria or interstate during the summer bushfires.
"Our roles can be activated on scene if there's a difficult event like a fire or motor vehicle accident with a fatality," Ms Bedggood said.
But they do "whatever is needed" - from dropping off food for weary firefighters at incidents to discussing an issue a member might be experiencing over the phone or visiting an injured firefighter in hospital.
While their main focus is on CFA members and their families, they also speak with bystanders who may have witnessed something potentially traumatic.
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While everyone processes what they are exposed to differently, Ms Bedggood said Peers provided on the ground support to help people to find their resilience.
It is both free and confidential and while they are not counsellors, they are able to direct people to other services.
"We don't fix anything. It's not our job to fix. But it's our job to give people the skills to manage themselves, and help them find a way forward," Ms Bedggood said.
Given the events of this year, Ms Bedggood said it had never been more vital for firefighters to reach out to others.
"We're all feeling some sense of isolation, one way or another, where you can't have those casual conversations at the fire station or on a job or socially, because you can't have a barbecue down at the station.
"So now we have to be more proactive in asking that question, 'are you okay?' And many people are okay, but it is important that we ask nevertheless."
Take it further than asking if a person is okay, Ms Bedggood said, and be prepared to listen to the answer and encourage them to seek help. After the initial conversation, check in a few days or weeks later, depending on the situation.
It is also important to ask the same question of ourselves.
For people in service organisations, there are internal support services but for other community members, Ms Bedggood said talking to a GP was a good place to start.
"Taking the first step is always the hardest but the sooner we do, the sooner we get help.
"A conversation can change a life."
- Need assistance? CFA Wellbeing Support Line: 1800 959 232 or Lifeline: 13 11 14
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