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Psychosocial Responses to Disaster

In this second decade of the 21st century we have seen unprecedented floods in Australia, South Africa, the Philippines, and Brazil; Japan suffering the effects of a major earthquake, tsunami and radiation; earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile and Turkey; and massive wildfires and widespread tornadoes in the USA. Also precipitating loss of life and widespread damage, the fires of unrest and protest that have erupted across the Middle East, from Yemen to Bahrain, to Egypt and Libya, hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets, voicing their opposition to long held regimes who have tried to quell the rising chorus, at times with violence.

In 2010 in particular, we saw devastation across the globe. From the beautiful mountainsides of Haiti, China and Turkey, to the coastal areas of Chile…natural disasters have left hundreds of thousands dead or injured and millions more displaced, many experiencing psychological “aftershocks.” Equally devastating, armed conflict continues to disrupt lives, communities and countries – from the urban streets of Bangkok, to the mountains of rural Afghanistan, the jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the suburbs of Baghdad…. many more hundreds of thousands are affected by humans fighting each other — and suffer the consequences of violent conflict — residents live in terror, flee their homes and their communities, lose livelihoods, loved ones and ways of life.

In the immediate aftermath of these kinds of events, focus is necessarily on rescue efforts, on the provision of food and water and temporary shelter, and the treatment of physical wounds. But the psychological impacts on survivors, and those related to them, are equally important. For some survivors, these psychosocial effects last long after the news cameras and international aid organizations move on.

We know from past disasters around the world that distress, anxiety, grief, even terror, are normal responses to such an abnormal event. We know too, that there is no universal response to this kind of trauma, and there is no universal “treatment.” We do know that in time, most people adapt and are able to build new normal lives. Some, however, do face long-term challenges.

To ensure that survivors have the best possible chance to adjust to the consequences of such disasters, past large-scale traumatic events provide key lessons about how to manage the psychological and social impacts:

  • In the immediate aftermath of such tragic events, social support and basic psychological “first aid” is an effective way to support people responding to the challenges posed by their experience of the disaster. Psychology Beyond Borders supports the guidelines for mental health response to disasters developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a consortium of international humanitarian organizations including the United Nations. These recommended strategies are informed by evidence of what works versus what does not work in the immediate provision of psychosocial assistance to those in need. Click here to download a copy of the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings.
  • For assisting individuals in the immediate aftermath of disaster, Psychology Beyond Borders also supports the Psychological First Aid Guidelines developed by the National Center for PTSD. Click here for more information.
  • For those people who do experience sustained psychological distress, research shows (for example in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks) that the wrong response to a disaster by well-meaning helpers can actually add to long-term suffering. It is therefore crucial that all “help” is based on the best possible evidence and that mental health workers are trained and experienced in those evidence-informed methods.
  • The need for contributing to the body of evidence of what works and what does not work in helping communities, survivors and others affected by disaster is critical, otherwise further harm can be enacted. Contributing to the body of evidence through facilitating the development, implementation and evaluation of psychosocial practices is the mission of Psychology Beyond Borders.
  • The need for long term strategic planning is essential to augment the “help” provided in the short term. Focusing on well-planned, evidence-informed (and evidence-building), long-term psychosocial practices that build local community capacity is also the mission of Psychology Beyond Borders.