It has been close to two years since the 2019-20 bushfire season began. It is one no Australian will ever forget, but for the many communities and NSW Rural Fire Service members who lived it, the memories and ongoing impacts remain everyday battles.
The RFS say after that summer the organisation took on a "refreshed" approach to mental health.
"It really brought to life conversations about mental health, not just recovery but also prevention," said Tenneile Manenti who leads a new team at NSW RFS named Health and Wellbeing.
"After 2019/2020 there was the recognition that we needed a holistic, strategic approach."
Part of this strategy is building up the capability of NSW RFS members to support each other - from expanding its volunteer peer support program, to rolling out Mental Health First Aid courses, delivered with funding from Resilience NSW in a joint initiative with Fire and Rescue NSW and NSW State Emergency Service.
"It's about how do we build capacity and capability to prepare for another season like 2019/20?", Ms Manenti said.
"How does someone recognise when someone's not doing so well? What are the signs? How do they have a conversation? And how do they refer them?"
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Ms Manenti said despite more conversations starting after 2019/20, they were still battling a degree of stigma around mental health.
"Particularly in smaller towns and communities, people might be reluctant, but having the skills at that grassroots level makes it a community-led recovery."
NSW RFS manager Mental Health Services Traci Carse said that in addition to a newly expanded mental health services team, with psychologists located around the state, NSW RFS had had their peer to peer support program in place for decades and were planning to increase its footprint.
"We know people reach out to people they know, who have relevance, credibility and a shared understanding," Ms Carse said.
"Sometimes it's just 'I want to know someone cares about me'".
Ian Pratt is one of eight group captains in the Riverina Highlands District. His community of Tumbarumba was devastated by the Black Summer bushfires and he personally lost 95 per cent of his property.
His house survived, but his son's house, just 200 metres away on the same property, did not and like many he and his family are still living in a container home.
"There's still a lot of people around here hurting and a lot of people who aren't ready to say I need help," Mr Pratt said.
"Or sometimes you think you're doing ok and then something happens and you realise you're not."
Mr Pratt said within the RFS an informal peer support model was utilised more than people realised.
"Within a brigade there will be people who talk with other members, and sometimes that's all that's needed, someone who will listen, they're not trained people, they're just looking after a mate," Mr Pratt said.
"But the phone numbers for getting trained helpers who are also RFS volunteers are always available."
Mr Pratt said while some people were very good at listening and supporting, they also needed to be aware of the impact listening to others' stories had on them.
Mentoring Men is a not-for-profit program Mr Pratt hoped would kickstart more peer to peer support training.
Ted Cushing is a volunteer with the program and is also a member of the NSW Health Bushfire Recovery team, deployed to the Tumut region following the fires.
Mr Cushing said Mentoring Men was blokes helping blokes in need with the tag line, 'no man walks alone.'
"Mentoring Men offers training for people and part of that is suicide prevention training," Mr Cushing said.
"We have 'R U OK Day' but what do you actually say when someone says 'no I'm not doing so well'?
"The other part of the program is training men about how to be mentors, giving them tools to help their community."
As part of his role at NSW Health, Mr Cushing also helped support 'Fire Shed Fridays' which invited NSW RFS members, and at times their families and community, to gather for a barbeque and fire pit, offering the opportunity for some people to open up and share their experiences.
"There's a saying that women talk face to face, while men talk shoulder to shoulder," Mr Cushing said.
"Standing around a fire pit allows people to talk while they're looking at something else, that was really helpful.
"I don't think a lot of people could understand what they went through.
"There's traumatic experience, upon traumatic experience and it's just compounded."
Mr Cushing said he had organised a survey, run through NSW Health, to better understand how young men in particular, many of whom are RFS members, feel about mental health.
"...after the bushfire disaster, it has been identified that men, in particular young men in the Snowy Valleys area are difficult to reach and deliver appropriate health-related services to," Mr Cushing said.
If you are a Snowys Valley resident go to www.surveymonkey.com/r/8N78FXW to complete the survey.
- If you or someone you know needs help now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
- The Rural Guide to a Healthy Mind is out on October 7
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