Mental Health

The role of mental health professionals in disaster response

Whenever there is a disaster of any magnitude, mental health professionals often are mobilized to help. To an outside observer, it would be difficult to tell the mental health professional apart from the other volunteers who are also offering water or blankets. But there are some unique roles of mental health professionals in disaster response.

According to SAMHSA, mental health providers in disaster settings are probably NOT best employed in disaster settings in the following capacities:

  • Engaging in casefinding activities
  • Providing case management services
  • Creating or implementing emergency preparedness activities
  • Advocating in an adversarial manner
  • Engaging in fundraising for disaster survivors
  • Providing childcare or transportation for disaster survivors

Rather, because you as a mental health professional are uniquely trained in helping people cope with stress and strong emotions, you are able to help disaster survivors and public safety workers understand how common what they’re feeling is, whether it’s anger, sadness or other strong emotions, as an initial response to disaster-related stress. Here are some general principles about your disaster-related roles as a mental health professional:

  • Provide psychological first-aid rather than psychotherapy and review the primer on crisis counseling to appreciate the contrasts in these two roles.
  • Focus on initial stress response, coping, and resiliency rather than historical issues, through an approach in which you:
    • Listen to people’s concerns on a variety of issues including their homes, missing family members, and pets.
    • Help people to manage their temporary living conditions and to acclimate to shelters located possibly far from their home state and in different environments.
    • Provide information about available resources for current needs, such as clothing and medical care, to help to facilitate those connections.
    • Advocate for the needs of particular individuals or families as they navigate the systems that have been established to provide aid.
    • Help individuals to develop resiliency skills by making connections with family and friends who’ve also survived or not been part of the disaster; accepting that change is going to be an ongoing experience; maintaining a hopeful outlook; nurturing spirituality; and helping people to develop their own personal recovery plans.
    • Listen and respond to parents’ concerns about how their children will recover from the disaster and manage the challenges ahead.
    • Help problem-solve conflicts among shelter residents; among family members; and among volunteers and staff.
    • Help people to manage other life disasters that might be happening simultaneous to the disaster aftermath (e.g. death or illness of a relative not related to the disaster).
    • Perform a psychoeducational role in helping disaster survivors and public safety workers appreciate normal common reactions. Some of these include: fears, memories, nightmares, irritable and/or withdrawn emotions, and confusion.
    • Assure people that it is possible to recover from disaster and to build fulfilling and satisfying lives.
    • In working with children, notice and support positive coping strategies; help children to reestablish connections with others; help children to find ways to help others; help families reestablish familiar routines and structures; remind children and families of the importance of taking breaks from recovery efforts and other healthy self-care; and use disaster-related coloring books.
    • Provide information on how and where to seek longer-term assistance.

Web Links

Read this article to see how disasters affect mental health.

This report by the National Association of Social Workers highlights research on types of disasters and their impacts on mental health.