Education is a critical part of disaster preparedness. One aspect of disaster education for public safety personnel that is sometimes overlooked is mental health. It is a topic that agencies and individuals tend to overlook until after a traumatic event, by which time it has already arisen as a threat to the psychological well-being of rescuers.
Here is some information about disaster mental health that public safety personnel should be aware of:
- No two individuals will have identical reactions to a traumatic event. The number of factors that influence each person’s ways of responding are countless, but a person’s prior training and education have been identified as having a significant determining effect.
- Public safety personnel are among those most at risk of experiencing pathological reactions to stress following a disaster. Severe reactions, including suicide and substance abuse, have been documented among those who responded to Hurricane Katrina and the World Trade Center.
- If they go untreated, disaster-related psychological difficulties can have a real and significant negative impact on any and all aspects of one’s life, to include;
- 1) Ability to be alert and safe while on duty.
- 2) Physical health and fitness.
- 3) Relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.
There exists among public safety personnel a reluctance to seek psychological help during times of personal crisis. One reason for this atmosphere of reticence is the stigma that is oftentimes associated with mental health. Here are four common myths that can keep public safety personnel from seeking help when they need it, along with the truth about what they say:
Everyone goes through tough times, but psychological counseling is for those who are too weak or too crazy to adjust to everyday difficulties.
Reality: Everyone DOES go through tough times, and everyone, no matter who they may be, is susceptible to the debilitating effects of the disaster environment.
If my agency finds out that I am seeing a ‘shrink’, my career will be over.
Reality: These days, most administrators realize the importance of ensuring the psychological well being of their personnel as part of maintaining an effective organization. It is also important to know that if you feel the need to seek help, you are afforded legal protections from being harassed or unfairly stigmatized.
Counseling is ineffective.
Reality: Treatment with a licensed counselor/psychologist allows you to capitalize on the therapeutic value of talking with others about your experiences, concerns, and fears. Professionally trained mental health professionals can further facilitate your recovery by providing a safe, empathetic atmosphere and by effectively identifying and treating the causes of psychological struggle.
If I give it time, the emotional difficulties I am experiencing will pass.
Reality: For some people this may be the case; however, for many others these difficulties will simply appear in the form of seemingly unrelated struggles, such as substance abuse, relationship problems, and even physical symptoms. For others, a lengthy period of apparently good health may pass following the cessation of disaster operations before symptoms even appear.
Article from the American Psychological Association called Mind/Body/Health; The Effects of Traumatic Stress. It discusses how stress can impact all facets of one's existence.
Article called Incidents Most Likely to Traumatize Rescue Workers. It discusses the issue in a way that is specific to public safety personnel.