Mental health is the hidden casualty of the Williamtown contamination crisis.
Much has been written about the loss of livelihoods, the feared health impacts and the plummeting house prices, but the inevitable consequence of all of these impacts is a decline in mental health.
Job loss, financial pressure and health concerns regularly feature in lists of the leading causes of stress. Some residents are experiencing tension from all of these factors, as well as the destabilising effect of being in a situation they can’t control.
"I am lost, I don’t know where to go, or how to fix this,” one woman said, elucidating the utter sense of despair and powerlessness that has gripped the community.
About 650 homes lie within the red zone, with residents unable to use bore water and fishermen banned from local waterways. Their lives have been robbed of certainty and many endure sleepless nights worrying about the future.
More than six months after the Defence Department confirmed that perfluorinated chemicals used on the RAAF base had leached into surrounding ground and surface water, the lives of affected residents remain in limbo. They can’t get confirmation of health risks, blood testing has been denied, property buy-backs won’t be discussed, and compensation for those out of work is insufficient.
On top of this they feel betrayed by Defence, the organisation they once viewed as their good neighbour.
Against this background, residents have become suspicious of authority, which appears to be why many have shied away from using the dedicated mental health services that have been provided, which include weekly half-day clinics at Fern Bay and a special phone line for residents. Uptake has been low and Hunter New England Health admits lack of trust is an issue.
It is hard to see how authorities can help, other than to perhaps provide added funding for people to seek assistance from private practitioners without the burden of gap fees or the cap of 10 sessions per year provided under federal regulations.
Even then, there is no sugar-coating the very real and traumatic circumstances the residents of the red zone are grappling with.
The only effective way of addressing their mental health issues is for the federal government to accept responsibility for fixing the problems that are causing them.