Caring for the Mental Health of Disaster Victims

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In the wake of so many horrific disasters worldwide over the last two decades, the 911 terrorist attacks, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Indonesian and Fukushima tsunamis, and many others, there has been an increased focus on providing for the mental health needs of survivors and their families by both government and private organizations alike.


Survivors of such tragedies have been exposed to severe traumatic experiences and situations, including mortal danger, violence and destruction, witnessing gruesome injuries and fatalities, loss of friends and loved ones, homes, possessions, and whole communities, exposure and fatigue, and possibly toxic contamination.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, disaster survivors typically display the following reactions immediately after the event:

  • Shock and fear, anger, grief, and guilt
  • Disorientation, confusion, and temporary memory loss
  • Distrust of others and withdrawal from social situations
  • Fatigue, insomnia, aches and pains, and loss of appetite

Most survivors will only experience these reactions at a low level and only temporarily. However, about 30% will display more severe symptoms of stress, including:

  • Dissociation from surroundings, possibly amnesia
  • Reliving the disaster through flashbacks, nightmares, and unwanted memories
  • Inability to feel emotions
  • Panic attacks and extreme anger and rage
  • Debilitating worry and anxiety
  • Deep depression

Those who experience these severe symptoms are at much greater risk for long-term Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and other serious mental health issues.

Caring for the Mental Health of Disaster Victims

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Fast and appropriate attention to the survivors of a disaster is the most effective way to help them avoid lasting mental health problems. It’s important to open up a dialogue with victims, and to help defuse their emotions by asking them to tell their story and about practical concerns such as whether they’re getting assistance.

The National Center for PTSD has created a simple and easy to remember checklist for caregivers:

  • Protect. Help survivors protect their dignity, self-esteem, privacy and safety.
  • Connect. Assist in getting survivors in touch with their family, friends and service providers.
  • Select. Refer people to essential services and programs that may be medical, spiritual, mental health, and financial in nature.
  • Direct. Help victims get to the places they need to be so they can plan, prioritize, and organize their needs.
  • Validate. Help people understand that their reactions are normal, and talk to them about ways to cope now and in the future.

Another handy list that can be taught to survivors as something to bring to mind each day uses the term FILL-UP:

  • Focus Inwardly on the things that are most important to you and your loved ones
  • Look and Listen to what those around you are feeling and experiencing, to help you to remember what’s important
  • Understand Personally how your experiences are a part of your life and what they mean, so you can move on and use your experience to nurture personal growth

Remember that people will recover from the trauma of disaster at their own pace and in their own good time.

Seek Professional Guidance

For those disaster survivors who experience the more severe symptoms of stress and trauma, especially if they still experience difficulties in their lives after three months, it’s vitally important that they seek professional help. PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders can be successfully treated with therapy and medication. If you or someone you know has experienced the trauma of disaster, contact us today for a private consultation. It’s always completely confidential.