Sensory trauma could affect White Island first responders - St John psychologist

News 18/12/2019

A St John psychologist says Whakaari/White Island first responders could suffer from sensory trauma after experiencing the sharp smells and sights from the eruption's aftermath.

The devastating eruption on December 9 led to more than 30 people being admitted to burns units and hospitals across the country, and the small Whakatane Hospital faced one of New Zealand's largest natural disasters.

Speaking to Magic Talk's Steven McIvor, Adele Saunders described how St John staff are still working through what they saw, smelt and felt on the day of the eruption.

"That sensory-type trauma is really real," she said.

"The result of the volcanic eruption and the sulphur, that's something that's still sitting with people."

Sensory trauma may be something that "crops up" later on when the responders experience a similar sense and it brings them back to the eruption.

"It's about allowing people time to process that and to work through it. If they need further support to do that in a more accelerated way, there's always options for that," she said.

She said St John staff are "innately skilled and resilient", but she knows of people who are struggling.

"We're aware of them and we're wrapping a level of support around them based on their needs," she said

She added that St John offers a "smorgasbord" of support systems including peer support personnel, trained managers, chaplains and external support.

Currently in Whakatane, Saunders said the team had a debrief on Tuesday evening where they were able to talk through the eruption and the events that followed.

"There's some real therapeutic value of doing that [talking through the event]. It allows people to get a full picture of what occurred on the day, to fill gaps and correct perspectives of what happened."

Going into the holiday season, she said St John will check up on the nearly 120 staff currently on their list to ensure they're doing well.

"We're making sure that we have a conversation with each of them, check where they're at, how they're travelling and then making sure that they have a programme or a level of support based on their needs."

She added that St John will be "walking alongside them" during their personal recovery process.

Magic Summer Breakfast weekdays from 6am / Newshub reporter Rachel Sadler