Introduction to Planning and Preparedness for Mental Health Professionals
In some ways, mental health professionals must prepare for disasters “the same way as everyone else.” The information in the public section of this website will be very helpful for you, in educating yourself about various disaster possibilities in your area, developing a written disaster plan for your home and for your place of business, compiling and storing your disaster supply kits, and preparing in other physical and tangible ways for a disaster. The FEMA site Ready.gov has many other important resources.
It is necessary to address another important component of preparedness and planning: mental health. How can you as a mental health professional prepare and plan for a disaster so that you may, not only survive it personally, but respond to it in a way that promotes your growth and that of others? Preparedness includes the essential actions and information-gathering referenced above, as well as mental health. Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany disasters.
SAMHSA, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, assembled a group of experts to study what helps people through disaster, and they suggested based on these studies ten common features of a mentally healthy response to these events. These responses, especially relevant for disaster mental health practitioners, include:
- Individualized and person-centered approach: Each of us must prepare and plan for disasters in a way that “fits” with how we are human, and we must as mental health professionals tailor our approaches individually. For example, a disaster that involves relocation will be experienced differently for someone who has recently moved to a city compared to someone living there all of her life.
- Self-direction: Although other people can influence and assist with our response to life events, such as disasters, we each must take our human trip for ourselves, and each person’s experience of a disaster is unique. Humanistic psychology emphasizes the importance of self-direction and autonomy in disaster response.
- Hope: Mental health professionals have found that hope, something that other traditions might refer to as positive outlook or even faith, can help people to prepare for and experience disasters in a mentally healthy fashion.
- Responsibility: Although resources, including websites such as this one, can help in preparation, ultimately disasters demand that we respond in a way that takes responsibility, that is our own.
- Empowerment: The essence of preparedness is to be empowered, to be able to not be merely a victim of disasters but a participant in their process. Additional information about empowerment is located throughout our website.
- Respect: People experiencing disasters, including mental health responders, are still people first and foremost. A mentally healthy approach to disasters respects and honors personal experience and meaning-making.
- Peer-support: Although each of us experiences a disaster in ways that are unique to us and to our experience, and although we can count on governmental and other agencies to assist us through these experiences, reliance on those around us and similar to us is also an important feature of a mentally healthy response to disasters.
- Strengths-based: Our approach to mental health in disaster is founded on the idea that people are fundamentally strong and that, rather than speaking to deficits or shortcomings, we build our response to disasters on these strengths.
- Non-linear: Although some elements of disasters and our responses to them are predictable in terms of progressing through phases to a defined outcome, a mentally healthy response to disaster takes its own journey, sometimes with twists and turns and according to its own timetable. Responding to, and recovering from, disaster is a personal and somewhat unique experience.
- Holistic: This element of preparedness, response, and recovery emphasizes how disasters are part of a whole life, culture, and time. Although having some special features, they are not separate from other human experiences.