Natural disasters like the earthquakes, tsunamis, and super typhoons are traumatic events outside the normal experience of people. It affects not only individuals, but communities as a whole. Psychological effects can persist for years, and survivors often feel that their lives have changed forever.
Phases of a Disaster
According to studies, there are six phases of a disaster.
Pre-disaster (Warning or Threat). The community’s response is dependent on the kind of warning they receive. Natural disasters usually allow communities to prepare for evacuation. Human-caused disasters like chemical oil spills or bombings usually have no advance notice.
Disaster (Impact). This is the actual onset of disaster. Survivors could feel panic at this point, and the main concern is survival.
Heroic (Rescue). In this phase, there is a general atmosphere of heroism. People help out each other and even risk their lives to save other people. When typhoon Ketsana ravaged the Philippines in September 2009, for example, a lot of civilian rescuers have been killed saving neighbors and strangers from the flood.
Honeymoon (Community Cohesion). There is an outpouring of support for the survivors of the disasters. Financial, material, and human service assistance from national and international organizations usually abound.
Disillusionment. In this phase, external support will have petered out, and communities affected by the disaster may feel abandoned and neglected. There will be feelings of hostility for perceived unfairness of resource allocation.
Reconstruction and Recovery. In this phase, around one to three years after the disaster struck, communities will have begun to rebuild their lives. Physical structures are built again, and life seems back to normal.
Physical and Psychological-Social Impacts of Disaster
The impact of disasters is widespread, and physical effects include destruction of property; death or injury of loved ones; shortage of basic needs such as shelter, food, and water; and vulnerability of at-risk groups for exploitation, like child trafficking.
Psychological effects include fear and anxiety about survival, reunification with family members, and relocation; and grief for the loss of loved ones, property, and other valuable possessions.
Majority of people affected by disasters are naturally resilient and recover even without interventions. However, there is a small percentage that would require attention from a mental health professional.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when any of the following are still present in a survivor months after the event, counseling with a professional may help.
- Disorientation like memory loss, inability to give date/time or recall recent events
- Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder like feeling constantly on edge, irritability, flashbacks of images from the disaster, and obsessive fear of another disaster coming
- Symptoms of depression like sleeping problems, eating problems, withdrawal from others, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and suicidal thinking or attempts
- Signs of mental illness like hearing voices, seeing visions, and delusional thinking
- Inability to care for one’s self, like not eating, bathing, changing clothing or handling daily life activities
- Homicidal thoughts or plans
- Alcohol or drug use
- Domestic violence, child abuse, or elder abuse
Interventions for Communities Affected by a Disaster
After a disaster strikes, people in general feel compelled to extend assistance. While it is good that a lot of people would like to help, uncoordinated provision of aid would only lead to chaos, as it will result to some being given too much (especially the most accessible places), and to others being neglected.
It is important, therefore, to observe the following when planning to give interventions to communities affected by a disaster:
- Collaborate and coordinate with a government agency mandated to attend to the needs of the community. If possible, all financial and material assistance should be coursed through them, so as to maximize the aid given.
- An assessment of the community’s needs must be conducted, per phase, to identify the pressing needs of the survivors.
- At-risk groups like women, children, the elderly, and those with disabilities must be identified.
Aside from provision of practical needs, however, psychosocial activities must also be given to at-risk individuals.
Interventions for Workers Helping Survivors of Disaster
Disaster work is emotionally and physically exhausting. Frontline workers who are directly in contact with the survivors are at risk for being traumatized themselves. Being constantly faced with the magnitude of the disaster’s impact, the survivors’ reactions, and how the survivors themselves treat these workers can have an overwhelming effect on them.
Ensuring that these workers are given adequate shelter, food, and rest during their work, even if these are not available to all survivors, may seem unfair but absolutely necessary. Keeping the workers in a healthy condition ensures that they can continue providing services to affected communities. Over and beyond their practical needs, however, psychosocial assistance during and after their work is also a high priority.
American Academy of Pediatrics. “Psychosocial Issues for Children and Families in Disasters.” National Mental Health Information Center. Accessed 01 March 2010.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2005. “Disaster Mental Health Primer.” Accessed 01 March 2010.
Ehrenreich, John H. 2001. Coping with Disasters: A Guidebook to Psychosocial Intervention. Accessed 01 March 2010.
U.S. Department of Mental and Human Services. 2000. Field Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Workers in Major Disasters. Accessed 01 March 2010.