All Being Equal: Exploring Post-traumatic Growth

After years of dealing with the stress of losing family in a major bushfire, Rhonda Abotomey met Louise Harms for a coffee to talk about Post-traumatic Growth. In conversation with Bernadette McSherry.

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Bernadette McSherry
Hello and welcome to All Being Equal. I'm Bernadette McSherry, the Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute which supports interdisciplinary research across the University of Melbourne which aims to ameliorate disadvantage. Just a warning in advance that some listeners may find the subject matter distressing because this episode draws on interviews with those involved in Australia's worst bushfires that occurred in Victoria on the 7th of February 2009. I just want to emphasise that we won't be dwelling on what happened, rather we'll be focussing on the growth that can occur for people from their exposure to trauma. In the studio with me are Rhonda Abotomey, who describes herself as a ‘Black Saturday bushfire bereaved trauma insider’ and a ‘common sense advocate’, and Associate Professor Louise Harms from the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne. So Rhonda if I start with you, how did the project come about?

Rhonda Abotomey
I'd like to start by explaining that I actually lost three of my own family members in the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. And late in 2012, so almost four years after the fires occurred – and I was still immersed in a lot of bushfire-related matters – I met with Lou Harms. We were introduced on a Black Saturday related matter but nothing to do with this actual project. And in the course of that conversation over a coffee I was telling Lou conversationally about some of the advocacy I'd been doing being on an advisory group, the bereaved advisory group for government and involvement with the Royal Commission and the trial related to the fires. And that I had written some poetry and that my writings had ended up in the Melbourne Museum and that I had also launched my own bushfire recovery initiative. All as things that I have never had any experience with before. And Lou said “oh, that sounds like a really good example of post-traumatic growth” and my ears perked up instantly and I thought “wow, it's almost four years since Black Saturday and I've been given a lot of material, most of it about all the incapacity that happens to you from being exposed to that sort of trauma. But I never heard the words post-traumatic growth and I instantly thought what a shame. What a waste to not know that as a normal part of trauma reaction you could have the experience of post-traumatic growth, and there's a formal term for it.” And in that moment in a throwaway line over coffee I expressed a wish. I said I wish there were resources given to people about post-traumatic growth and I wish I had heard other people's accounts of their experience of post-traumatic growth. Lou contacted me about a month later and she said how would you be interested in trying to put a proposal for some interdisciplinary research exploring Black Saturday post-traumatic growth? And I thought I would love to do that.

BernadetteWell, Lou that's an amazing way of instigating a research project. Can you tell us a bit about post-traumatic growth? I think people have heard about post-traumatic stress, but maybe not necessarily this term and what sparked off your interest in working with Rhonda on this.

Louise Harms
Yes, so post-traumatic growth is actually a term that's been around at least since the mid-1990s. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the states really coined the term and it was out of their research and practice experience with survivors primarily of health crisis. Recognising that yes, there was the damage and losses of those health crises but that many people reported new strengths. Post-traumatic growth, therefore, has been really conceptualised around three areas of positive adaptation after trauma. And that's really that people are frequently reporting an enhanced sense of self. So that they are reporting new confidence, new skills, new identity. They are reporting an enhanced sense of worldview, so a sense of the world fitting together differently and positively typically. And also an enhanced sense of relationships with other people. So we often hear about the losses of relationship but in fact what this taps into is that people at least perceive that other people are there for them if they're not receiving directly that social support. So those three domains have been there in the literature. It's really only been in last three years that those areas have been applied to a post-disaster context. So we're very excited to be in that wave of research that's focussing in on not only people's post-traumatic stress, but the ways in which they've experienced the world positively.

Rhonda, when you heard Lou's words about post-traumatic growth that obviously sparked off an interest in you. Can you perhaps explain to us what post-traumatic growth has meant for you?

Post-traumatic growth actually has been a really important part of my trauma experience because it's an anchor of hope and it's a small ray of light within a very, very, dark experience. And so I've really used that as a really important tool but I didn't have any language for it. It was quite an isolating experience because people didn't talk about it and those words certainly were never used and so I didn't have any points of connection around my growth. Hearing Lou use the words actually gave me a language that I really needed and that I didn't have. And for me the examples of it were in getting involved in things and meeting people, forming new relationships, and having experiences that just would not have been part of my life but for the trauma experience that I had.

Can you tell us a bit more about that because apparently you've written poems as a result?

Well, it started off I just started writing after the fires for myself for some reflective pieces of writing just as a coping strategy and as a way of getting down those feelings – that was quite a private experience. And then when the after the first anniversary happened and in the process of the organising of events for that first anniversary some of my writing was shared. And from there some of it was turned into poetry and then I started writing poetry just myself straight off the bat. Similar was the experience of launching a bushfire recovery initiative which was called S.O.C. Day – Seeds of Compassion – and that was just an initiative to again draw on the positive experiences and add resources into the space of trying to bring some extra tools to help people cope and it was a very simple initiative. I'm a great believer in the KISS principle, you know keep it simple and it's the same with post-traumatic growth project. The most simple element of it and one of the key goalposts is to start using the words. Because if people don't know the words post-traumatic growth exists there's no invitation into that space.

BernadetteWell Lou, I'm interested in how you worked out the methodology for a project that explores something quite new.

It was a really important discussion where the interdisciplinary team became really critical around thinking through the kind of space we wanted to create for the interviewees. And we also wanted a really important link there with social equity, so this the bit preceding the methodology if you like. That just as you said Rhonda, the issues of living with both the positive and negative issues that we felt that many people might find it more acceptable to talk about areas of growth and change, if not positive change, then talk about post-traumatic stress. We know people who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder are often very hard to reach and we felt that this was actually a way of opening up a conversation that was not going to be threatening and might actually open up some of the distress story, as well as the positive story. And that's very important in terms of the research literature that talks always a positive moderate if not strong correlation between post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth. So there was a social equity aim to what we wanted to do and so that infused the methodology also in the sense of reaching as many people as we could. And one of the constant reminders that Rhonda has brought, not only to our team but I think certainly statewide if not nationally, is to re-think what it means to be fire affected, that it's not a geographic community only that is affected. So our methodology we wanted to ensure that we heard voices from a whole range of experiences and so ensuring that we were reaching different geographical communities; urban, regional, rural. Different ways in which people might be affected whether they're professionally involved in the bushfire response or personally affected or both, And we've managed to get all of those voices and also to work with both men and women. So that presented a number of challenges for recruitment and widening that net as much as we could. But then really the study was designed to be giving voice to the experience of post-traumatic growth and so a broadly semi-structured interview seemed to be the way to give the participant the direction in that interview. And then we have formally followed that up with the standardised instrument to objectively measure post-traumatic growth. And interestingly our study is finding that there's some correlation and connection between the themes, but the interviews have opened up some new areas of growth that we really want to pursue because we think they've actually been real hooks for people grow from.

You mentioned this was a team of interdisciplinary researchers, so what disciplines were involved?

LouiseWe've got an artist, a computer scientist, a medical educator, and another social work colleague and myself as a social worker, and Rhonda is a survivor and often someone who said it was the voice from the kitchen.

And what do you see as the impact from this research project on practice?

RhondaWe had some really defined goal posts around firstly bringing the words post-traumatic growth and trying to mainstream it into the broader public and response space. We've also generated some specific post-traumatic growth resources based on the content provided by the interviewees. So the project is very much about honouring the voice of trauma insiders from whatever capacity they entered that space and reflecting their knowledge and expertise and marrying it together with the expertise of the academic space, really producing the best we can out of that marriage of expertise from both sides; the lived experience and then that more formal analysis of that information. So we have a website which will be launched in early November and it reflects those voices of experience.

And Lou, for you I assume that this sort of project can be rolled out looking at other forms of trauma as well?

LouiseThat's very much where we're at as a team looking at what are the next steps with that. So, as well as the web based resource that Rhonda's mentioned, the academic papers need to roll out of this and so Rhonda has drafted a paper around the being an insider researcher. We have two core papers out – not out yet, under development and ready to submit ­– around the phenomenon of post traumatic growth. And the barriers and enablers of post traumatic growth because there are so many practice and policy implications. But I think for us at this point in time it is we've tested these ideas, we've found that there's real room to scale this up and looking with the team at how we do that.

Well it's a wonderful example of a community lead project and Rhonda just finally what's your experience been of working with researchers?

It's been a wonderful experience. I think there's been a lot of courage in this space, I think courage on the part of the university to embrace that, bringing together of lived experience and academic rigour. It's been a really interesting, engaging experience,  very positive and I feel like the outcomes which I did forget to mention we also have an exhibition, like a physical exhibition, and roving road show which we're starting to use to be able to share that information as part of our pathway to working towards the bigger version of what we're doing.

Well congratulations to you both, it's very, very important work and thank you so much for coming in to tell us a little bit about it.

My guests today were Associate Professor Louise Harms and Rhonda Abotomey. More information about post-traumatic growth and this research can be found on the team's website and that's at Or by email to and we'll put those links on our website as well.

If you're experiencing negative impacts of trauma we encourage you to talk to a health professional or contact the Beyond Blue support service and that line is on 1300 22 46 36 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Thanks to producer Garry Dickson and audio-engineer Gavin Nebauer. Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to make sure you never miss an episode. I'm Bernadette McSherry, thanks for listening.