Whenever there is a disaster of any magnitude, psychologists often are mobilized to help.
To an outside observer, it would be difficult to tell the psychologist apart from the other volunteers.
Psychologists may be providing a variety of important support services, such as directing people to food and shelter, but they also offer crucial emotional support after a disaster.
Because psychologists are uniquely trained in helping people cope with stress and strong emotions, they are able to help disaster survivors, volunteers and disaster relief operation workers understand their emotions, such as anger, distress and grief.
Although psychologists do not offer therapy at disaster sites, they can help people build upon their own internal strengths to begin the process of recovering from the disaster. Psychologists help those in disastrous circumstances to build their skills of resilience to move from feeling hopeless to having a more long-term, realistic perspective. This process can include taking small steps toward concrete goals and connecting with others as they learn to cope with a disaster’s logistical and emotional challenges.
As psychologists offer this support, they may:
- 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 (clothing, medical care, etc); 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 resilience skills by making connections with family and friends who've also survived; accepting that change is going to be an ongoing experience; maintaining a hopeful outlook; and helping people to develop their own personal recovery plans.
- Listen to parents' concerns about how their children will recover from the disaster and manage potential challenges ahead (e.g. new schools, etc.).
- 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 at the same time (e.g. death or illness of a relative not related to the current event).
- Educate people that it is normal for disaster survivors to have an array of 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 promote healthy self-care.
- Provide information on how and where to seek longer-term assistance.
Thanks to psychologist Rosemary Schwartzbard, PhD who assisted with this article.
American Red Cross Foundations of Disaster Mental Health Manual.