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A compelling footnote to the recent Paris attacks was Facebook’s activation of its "Safety check" feature, which encouraged and enabled users thought to be in Paris to let their contacts know that they were safe. Ideally, this application served an important purpose: to dispel the agonizing worry associated with uncertainty about the welfare of a loved one who might be caught up in a dangerous situation.  Of course, the experience of separation is a pressing issue across many types of disasters and mass emergencies. Given the speed with which these events can arise, people can be caught apart from their loved ones during their daily routine, or separation may even be planned, such as if one person has an emergency responder role while another evacuates. In any case, being apart from one’s family or closest support network during moments of great danger represents a personally important experience for many people who endure disasters.

While we generally accept that disaster-related separation is a prominent part of the overall disaster experience, questions remain. Does everyone react the same way in all dangerous situations, or do some cope better with separation and being alone during times of danger?  If and when we’re reunified with loved ones, do we simply return to our normal state of functioning? Or can this experience of separation have a longer-lasting effect on mental health, even when a loved one is found to be safe? In addition to uncertainty and anxiety about the safety of those we care about, separation might frustrate fulfilment of one’s need for support and protection during a threatening situation. On the other hand, for some, separation under dangerous circumstances could be a welcomed situation (relatively speaking), allowing a person to concentrate on just their own actions, instead of having to worry about themselves and loved ones as well.

The Beyond Bushfires study is a five-year mixed methods study of individual and community health and wellbeing trajectories following the 2009 Bushfires in Victoria, Australia, which reached a destructive peak on the 7th February, 2009 – commonly known as  “Black Saturday” (Gallagher et al., 2016; Richardson et al, 2016). In the midst of a prolonged and severe drought, extreme heat and high winds drove massive bushfires across the state of Victoria, the deadliest in recorded Australian history. In the fires’ immediate wake were 173 fatalities, hundreds of physical injuries, the displacement of thousands of local residents, destruction of physical infrastructure, drastic changes to the natural landscape, and widespread and ongoing disruptions to mental health and community life. Given the time of day during which most affected communities came under threat (midday onwards); the common practice of defending one’s home from the flames; and the role of many local residents as emergency responders (e.g. in the Country Fire Authority); separation from family was a common occurrence, with over half of those surveyed reporting separation (with loss of contact) from close family members. Moreover, given the largely rural location of the fires, and the extent of the disaster, these separations persisted for hours into days, with 45% reporting uncertainty lasting longer than 12 hours – an experience reported as extremely stressful by the large majority of respondents (Richardson et al., 2016).

In our study, in surveys conducted three to four years after the event, we examined whether participants experienced a lingering mental health impact, stemming from separation during the bushfires; and were also interested in how adult attachment style might modify any such impact (Gallagher et al., 2016). Adult attachment styles are generally regarded as more-or-less stable patterns in how we think, feel, and behave with regards to the most important relationships in our lives. In particular, attachment theory (Bowlby, 1982) provides a rich set of predictions for how one is likely to react when faced with the unavailability of important loved ones in a time of danger. In contrast with secure attachment, two related but distinct styles are typically recognised: attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. Attachment anxiety is characterised by seeking excessive closeness and worrying about abandonment, while attachment avoidance is described in terms of excessive self-reliance, difficulties in getting close, and seeking distance from others in times of distress. These attachment styles have been found to be an important influence on how people respond to and recover from trauma such as disaster experiences, with conditions such as depression and PTSD repeatedly linked to higher levels of attachment anxiety and, to a lesser extent, to attachment avoidance.

In these analyses, we looked at 914 individuals who lived in an affected or at-risk community at the time of the bushfires (individuals who lost a close loved one in the fires were excluded). Overall, separation during the disaster was found to be associated with greater PTSD symptoms, adjusting for attachment style and severity of disaster exposure. However, we also found that individual attachment styles played an important, additional role. Among separated individuals, attachment-related anxiety (characterized by excessive worries of abandonment) was a particular liability for poor mental health outcomes, whereby amongst separated people, there was a stronger link between attachment anxiety and depression.  By contrast, attachment avoidance wasn’t a liability for separated individuals -  in fact, it was the opposite. For those with attachment avoidance – not being separated from loved ones during the disaster was associated with higher levels of depression and PTSD symptoms. Interestingly, when considering risk of PTSD for participants who were separated, avoidant individuals fared similarly to those with very secure attachments – at least with respect to PTSD symptoms associated with the bushfire event itself.

In all, these results indicate that separation form loved ones during a disaster may be an important predictor of mental health outcomes associated with the experience. Additionally, those with heightened attachment anxiety may react especially poorly.  We can speculate that this might be due to rumination over what could have happened, but didn’t, as well as the perception that needed support was unavailable at the time of danger. By contrast, while attachment avoidance was certainly not found to be a “good” thing for mental health overall, we did find that avoidant individuals who experienced separation were better off (in terms of both depression and PTSD) than avoidant individuals who were not separated. This suggests what might be a limited upside to avoidance as a cognitive defence mechanism whereby such individuals may operate more effectively when not burdened by an immediate concern and responsibility for the safety of loved ones.

Reference Article 

Gallagher, H. C., Richardson, J., Forbes, D., Harms, L., Gibbs, L., Alkemade, N., . . . Bryant, R. A. (2016). Mental Health Following Separation in a Disaster: The Role of Attachment. Journal of Traumatic Stress, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1002/jts.22071

Discussion Questions

  1. Does everyone react the same way in all dangerous situations, or do some cope better with separation and being alone during times of danger? 
  2. If and when we’re reunified with loved ones, do we simply return to our normal state of functioning? Or can this experience of separation have a longer-lasting effect on mental health, even when a loved one is found to be safe?


Author Biographies

H Colin Gallagher, PhD is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of  Melbourne, where he is a member of MelNet, the social networks laboratory (MelNet), and specializes in social network approaches to substantive issues in social mental health.

Karen Block, PhD is a research fellow in the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program in the Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne. Karen’s research interests are social inclusion and trauma recovery with a focus on children, young people and families, and working in collaborative partnerships with the community.

Both Gallagher and Block are researchers working on the Beyond Bushfires study, a five-year quantitative and qualitative investigation of the medium to long term impacts of the Victorian 2009 bushfires on the health and wellbeing of communities and individuals.


Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: retrospect and prospect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 52(4), 664-678.

Richardson, J., Snowdon, E., Gallagher H. C., Gibbs, L., Block K, Bryant R, Harms L, Ireton G, Kellett C, Sinnott V, Lusher D, Forbes D, MacDougall C,  Waters E. Separation and reunification in disasters: the importance of understanding the psycho-social consequences. (in press). In A. Awotona (Ed). The Disaster Life Cycle: Case Studies from Six Continents.