Self-care for Mental Health Professionals During Disaster Response

Taking care of yourself will help you to stay focused on taking care of others. Often mental health professionals and other responders do not recognize the need to take care of themselves and to monitor their own emotional and physical health during their involvement with disasters—especially when recovery efforts stretch into several weeks, and they experience unnecessary consequences such as burnout or compassion fatigue.

The following guidelines contain simple methods for self-care during disaster response. Read them while you are involved in health care disaster work, and during the period after the disaster.

  • Pace yourself. Rescue and recovery efforts at the site may continue for days or weeks.
  • Take frequent rest breaks. Rescue and recovery operations take place in extremely dangerous work environments. Mental fatigue over long shifts can place health care workers at greatly increased risk for poor decision-making and treatment lapses.
  • Be conscious of those around you. Mental health care responders who are exhausted, feeling stressed, or even temporarily distracted may place themselves and others at risk.
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible: regular eating and sleeping are crucial. Adhere to the team schedule and rotation.
  • Maintain adequate nutrition and try to eat a variety of foods. Particularly, try to increase your intake of complex carbohydrates (for example, breads and muffins made with whole grains, or granola bars).
  • Stay hydrated, with clean water and juices.
  • Whenever possible, distance yourself from the disaster site to maintain boundaries and achieve perspective. Eat and drink in the cleanest area available. Communicate with your loved ones at home as frequently as possible.
  • Give yourself permission to feel rotten: You are in a difficult situation.
  • Recurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks are normal—do not try to fight them. These responses to trauma will decrease over time and paying less attention to them will break the cycle of anxiety.
  • Recognize and accept what you cannot change—the chain of command, organizational structure, waiting, equipment failures, etc. Practice spirituality even in this difficult time.
  • Accept that, as you respond to the disaster, your “hidden wounds and hidden healing” are yours. Keep appropriate boundaries in the ways you involve others in your experience. There are some pieces of your experience that you will want to share, and some that you will want to forget. If the disaster facility includes mental health support for mental health providers, consider using it.

Web Links

This information sheet for emergency response workers prepared by the CDC covers the symptoms of stress and provides tips (some of which are above) for self-care on site and at home. (PDF)

This is a comprehensive handbook for mental health professionals that encompasses all aspects of disaster relief. (PDF)

This SAMHSA fact sheet, titled “Tips for Managing and Preventing Stress,” explains stress reactions and ways of managing them.