Coping with Disasters: A Guidebook to Psychosocial Intervention (2001)

Coping with Disasters: A Guidebook to Psychosocial Intervention (2001)
(Revised Edition)
John H. Ehrenreich, Ph.D.
October 2001
Sharon McQuaide, M.S.W., Ph.D.
Clinical Consultant
A Note on Use of this Manual
 John H. Ehrenreich, 2001. This manual is a guide to psychosocial interventions to help people
cope with the emotional effects of disasters. Permission is granted to review, abstract, translate
and/or reproduce any portion of this manual for use consistent with this purpose, but not for sale
or for use in conjunction with commercial purposes. Please acknowledge this manual as source if
any use is made of it. Please send copies of any translations to us so that we may make them
available in future disaster situations. Reports on use of this manual and suggestions for
improving it would be very much appreciated. Send comments and copies of translations to: John
H. Ehrenreich, Center for Psychology and Society, State University of New York, Box 210, Old
Westbury, NY 11568 (e-mail: [email protected])
.This manual is also available on the Internet at:
Introduction and Overview
Chapter I. Mental Health Consequences of Disaster
An Overview of the Psychological Consequences of Disaster
The Stages of Psychological Response to Disaster
Community and Social Impacts of Disaster
Chapter II. Effects of Disaster on Specific Groups
The Elderly
The Disabled
Rescue and Relief Workers
Chapter III. Assessing the Psychological Impact of Disasters
Chapter IV. Principles of Intervention Following Disaster
Safety and Material Security Underlie Emotional Stability
Assume Emotional Responses to Disaster are Normal
Interactions Should Be Matched to the Disaster Phase
Integrate Psychosocial Assistance with Overall Relief Program
Interventions Must take People’s Culture Into Account
Direct Interventions Have an Underlying Logic
Children Have Special Needs
Women Have Special Needs
Refugees Have Special Needs
Rescue and Relief Workers Have Special Needs
Chapter V. Techniques of Psychosocial Intervention
Crisis Intervention
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing
Stress Reduction techniques
Expressive Techniques
Appendix A: Assessment Instruments
Appendix B: Relaxation Scripts
Appendix C: Leaflets and Handouts
Appendix D: Further Resources
People all over the world know the destruction produced by weather, the
devastation of geological disaster, the havoc of industrial and transportation accidents.
Many know, as well, the misery of terrorism, chronic political violence, and war. Over
the last quarter of a century, more than 150 million people a year have been seriously
affected by disasters.
The physical effects of a disaster are usually obvious. Tens or hundreds or
thousands of people lose their lives. The survivors suffer pain and disability. Homes,
workplaces, livestock, and equipment are damaged or destroyed. The short-term
emotional effects of disaster -- fear, acute anxiety, feelings of emotional numbness, and
grief -- may also be obvious. For many victims, these effects fade with time. But for
many others, there may be longer-term emotional effects, both obvious and subtle.
Some of the emotional effects are direct responses to the trauma of disaster. Other
effects are longer-term responses to the interpersonal, societal, and economic effects of
the disaster. In any case, in the absence of well-designed interventions, up to fifty per
cent or more of the victims of a disaster may develop lasting depression, pervasive
anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other emotional disturbances. Even more than
the physical effects of disasters, the emotional effects cause long-lasting suffering,
disability, and loss of income.
There is no single, universally applicable recipe for responding to disasters.
Disasters come in many forms. Some, like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tidal waves, are
natural; others, like wars and terrorist attacks, are made by humans. Some, like a rape or a
fire in a home, immediately affect only one person or one family; others, like a bomb
blast or a tornado may affect hundreds of people or, like an earthquake or a war, may
affect entire communities and nations. Some, like personal assaults and ethnic cleansing,
are inflicted intentionally on their victims; others, like airplane crashes or industrial
accidents, though the result of human or technological error, are unintended. Disasters
may be relatively short lived, although devastating, or, as is the case with famine and
war, may last for years.
Perhaps the greatest source of variability, both in the effects of disaster and in the
most appropriate responses, stem from differences between the countries and cultures in
which a disaster occurs. There are two major components of this variability.
First, the level and patterns of economic development vary from country to
country. Wealthy countries face disasters with a wealth of human and material resources,
a well-developed medical and mental health infrastructure, highly structured emergency
planning, and efficient transportation and communication systems. While these are no
protection against the direct effects of a disaster, they greatly facilitate responses to
disaster. By contrast, poor countries lack these resources.
Second, many characteristics of poorer countries make their people more
vulnerable to the effects of a disaster. Substandard housing is more easily destroyed by
the high winds of hurricanes and cyclones. The dwellings of the poor, crowded onto flood
plains and unstable hillsides, are especially vulnerable to floods. Deforestation
destabilizes hillsides and contributes to the devastation of floods. Chronic malnutrition
and poor health status reduces resistance to infectious diseases in shelters and refugee
camps. Inefficient, understaffed, and unprepared government bureaucracies mismanage
relief efforts.
For these reasons, although disasters are no more likely to strike poor countries
than rich ones, the poor countries of the world share the overwhelming burden of the
human consequences of disaster. Africa and Europe have about the same total population.
But from 1992 to 1996, in the relatively wealthy countries of Europe, an average of 2352
people were killed and 54,820 made homeless by disasters each year. During the same
period, in the much poorer countries of Africa, an average of 7595 people were killed and
555,858 were made homeless each year. In this manual, we will not assume that
extensive pre-existing resources are available. To the extent they are available, the task of
response is made simpler and easier, but many of the same underlying principles of
response to disaster apply, everywhere in the world.
Cultural variations from one country to another and even within a given country
may also alter the course and consequences of disaster. They certainly are important in
planning responses to disaster. Communities in areas that are regularly struck by disaster
(e.g., villages in flood plains or in areas frequently hit by hurricanes) often evolve
traditional ways of understanding and responding to disaster. Patterns of family structure
in a community and social divisions along class, ethnic, religious, or racial lines may
affect patterns of mutual aid (or of mutual recrimination). Different cultural groups have
various beliefs about death and injury and about health and mental health and may
respond in unexpected ways to outside medical and mental health professionals.
Antagonistic relationships between local communities and central authorities affect the
ways in which outside warnings of impending disaster and outside offers of assistance are
Disasters affect not only individuals, but can tear the fabric of social life in larger
communities, even whole countries. They threaten the bonds attaching people to each
other and to a sense of community. Because both disaster and responses to disaster affect
different social strata differently, they can exacerbate social tensions (or, conversely, may
temporarily, at least, draw communities together).
It would be both impossible and inappropriate to give suggestions as to how to
respond to every possible variation of these. The ability to engage communities in a
process of mutual learning, to allow people to define their own needs, and to respect local
beliefs and traditions are as essential as specific mental health skills. Fortunately, the
principles involved in planning interventions appear widely applicable and, with
imagination and sensitivity, can be adapted for use in a wide variety of situations.
Because disasters affect communities and societies, because they affect different
countries and different cultures differently, and because many of the psychological
effects of disaster are created or affected by the direct social and economic effects of
disaster, we will conceptualize both the effects of disaster and appropriate responses to
disaster not as purely psychological and not as purely social/economic, but as
This manual outlines a variety of psychosocial interventions aimed at helping
people cope with the emotional effects of disasters. It is intended for use by mental health
workers (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other counselors), by primary
medical care workers (doctors, nurses, and other community health providers), by
disaster relief workers, by teachers, religious leaders, and community leaders, and by
governmental and organizational officials concerned with responses to disasters. It is
intended as a field guide or as the basis for brief or extended training programs in how to
respond to the psychosocial effects of disasters.
Chapter I of the manual outlines the effects of disasters on mental health,
including the several stages of responses to disaster. Chapter II focuses on the particular
needs of several specific groups of people – children, women, the disabled, the elderly,
rescue and relief workers, and those investigating disasters, such as journalists and human
rights workers. Chapter III explores issues related to assessing the responses and needs of
disaster victims. Chapter IV focuses on the broad principles underlying a wide range of
psychosocial interventions. Chapter V describes several specific techniques for
responding to the mental health effects of disaster which have been found helpful in a
variety of situations. The Appendices at the end of the manual include a variety of
materials that may be useful and information on additional resources.
In order to keep this manual to a manageable size, I had to make a number of
1. Throughout the manual, the focus is on short term psychosocial interventions aimed
at reducing distress, improving adaptive functioning in the face of the practical and
emotional demands created by the disaster, and preventing longer-term disability. The
interventions described can be carried out not only by mental health workers, but,
with brief training, by teachers, priests, social workers, nurses and other health
workers. The manual does not address intensive treatment of established post
traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other long term emotional consequences of
disasters, which requires more extensive training and/or long term organization of
mental health services.
It could be argued that measures to prevent disaster (e.g., early warning of storms),
measures to lessen the effects of disaster (e.g., building codes to lessen the likelihood
homes will be destroyed), and sustainable economic development are more effective
than psychosocial interventions with individuals or groups as ways of reducing the
toll of disasters. I have no argument with this position. Nevertheless, disasters do
happen (even when preventive measures, mitigative measures, and sustainable
development have occurred). The victims of disaster, in rich and poor countries alike,
cannot be ignored in the name of what could have been or should have been.
2. The term “disaster” can be interpreted very broadly to include a wide variety of
incidents. At one extreme are individual traumatic events – single episodes affecting
only a single person (e.g., a personal assault, a car accident). At the other extreme are
mass calamities affecting thousands or even millions of people over a period of many
years (e.g., the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown, the genocide in Rwanda, the 1999
hurricane and floods in Central America and their aftermath). This manual focuses
most directly on the middle part of this range, on what might be called a “typical”
disaster: disasters affecting at least a few dozens of people (e.g., a bus accident killing
or injuring dozens of people; an apartment fire making a number of families
homeless) up through events that are very calamitous indeed but which represent a
single episode of disaster (e.g., an earthquake killing tens of thousands of people, a
chemical plant explosion killing and injuring thousands). Although the observations
and techniques in this manual apply most directly to this “middle level” of disasters,
many of them can be applied, with modifications, to the individual traumas and the
prolonged and complex humanitarian disasters as well.
3. Since this manual is intended as a practical guide, a list of additional resources is
appended instead of a comprehensive set of references. These contain a wealth of
additional information as well as reference lists for anyone wishing to pursue
particular issues in greater depth.
4. I use a number of terms to indicate the people directly and indirectly affected by the
disaster and responding to the disaster. Those who provide rescue services, post
disaster medical care, and a wide variety of relief and reconstruction services
(including running shelters and refugee camps, distributing food, arranging for
communications with loved ones, helping plan rebuilding, and many, many other
services) I will call “relief workers,” regardless of their specific roles. I will suggest
later in the manual that people providing psychosocial services (i.e., the people at
whom this manual is directed) should be called “human service workers,”
“community counselors,” or some other term that does not imply that emotional
responses to disaster represent mental illness. I will often use the term “disaster
counselors” (or simply “counselors”) as a label for this group of people, regardless of
their professional specialization (or lack of it) or their precise roles in providing
psychosocial assistance. When I discuss interventions to assist survivors, I will refer
to the recipients of services as “clients.”
Throughout the manual, I have used the terms “victim” and “survivor”
interchangeably to indicate the individuals whose lives the disaster has devastated.
Despite my somewhat careless use of the two terms, the distinction made by Lourdes
Ladrido-Ignacio and Antonio P. Perlas, describing the response to a series of earthquakes,
typhoons, and volcanic eruptions in the Philippines in the early 1990s, serves as the
underlying theme of this manual:
The most basic issue in psychosocial intervention following disasters is to
transform those affected from being victims to survivors. What differentiates a
victim from a survivor is that the former feels himself [sic] subject to a situation
over which he has no control over his environment or himself, whereas a survivor
has regained a sense of control and is able to meet the demands of whatever
difficulty confronts him. A victim is passive and dependent upon others; a
survivor is not – he is able to take an active role in efforts to help his community
and himself recover from the disaster.
On Thursday, March 5, 1987, two earthquakes occurred in Ecuador, about 85 kilometers
from the capital city, Quito. Heavy rains over the preceding weeks had softened the soil
in the surrounding area and the earthquake caused massive landslides in the
mountainsides. Debris dammed up the rivers, causing flashfloods and destroying villages
along the banks and polluting the water supply throughout the region. The main highway
linking the region with the rest of Ecuador, as well as the secondary roads were
destroyed. The oil pipelines linking the country’s main oil fields with ports was shut off,
cutting the nation’s oil revenue by 50%. Thousands of people were put out of work
Rivers, a primary source of water, transportation, and food, and agricultural land, the
source of livelihood for thousands of people, became unusable. Over 70,000 homes, as
well as schools, hospitals, and public buildings were leveled. A thousand people were
killed and another five thousand made homeless.
On the night of December 2/3, 1984, the city of Bhopal in central India was covered by a
cloud of methyl isocyanate, a poisonous gas which had leaked from a tank at the Union
Carbide India Ltd. factory. Around midnight, people downwind of the factory woke up
with feelings of suffocation, intense irritation, and vomiting. Panic spread. People ran
desperately to escape the gas. Many died on the spot; others fell while running to escape.
Still others reached safety only after hours of running. About 300,000 people were
exposed to the deadly gas. About 2500 died.
Hundreds of squatters make their living by picking through the main dump for the ten
thousand tons of garbage produced in Manila, the Philippines, each day. On July 17,
2000, after a week of monsoon rains, the huge garbage mountain, fifty feet high and
covering more than seventy-four acres, collapsed. Although the complete toll may never
be known, at least eight hundred of them died, smothered to death. Complicating the
rescue effort were the poisonous fumes emitted by the rotting garbage and the stench of
decaying bodies. 1
Imagine yourself and your family the victim of a disaster: an earthquake, a
tornado, a flood, an airplane crash in your community, the threatened meltdown of a
The brief accounts of the Ecuador and Bhopal disasters are drawn from articles by L.K. Comfort and by
R.S. Murthy in the International Journal of Mental Health, 1990. The account of the Manila disaster is
from the New York Times, July 18, 2000.
nearby nuclear plant, a terrorist attack. What happens to us when we go through a
disaster? What do we feel and experience under such circumstances?
Almost instantly, in response to the sights and sounds of the event itself, our
hearts pound, our mouths go dry, our muscles tense, our nerves go on alert, we feel
intense anxiety or fear or terror. If there has been little or no warning, we may not
understand what is happening to us. Shock, a sense of unreality, and fear dominate. Long
after the event the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of the event persist as indelible
images in our memories.
As the immediate shock and terror dissipates, longer-term effects appear. The
disaster challenges our basic assumptions and beliefs. Most of us, most of the time,
believe that our personal world is predictable, benevolent, and meaningful. We assume
we can trust in ourselves and in other people and that we can cope with adversity.
Disaster destroys these beliefs. We become aware of our vulnerability. We feel helpless
and hopeless. We despair in our inability to make decisions and to act in ways that would
make any difference to our families and ourselves.
In the wake of the disaster, we grieve for the death of loved ones and we marvel at
own survival (and we may feel unworthy or guilty for having survived). We also grieve
for our home, for treasured personal memorabilia, for lost documents, lost familiar
neighborhoods. If the disaster has disrupted our community’s traditional subsistence
activities or our community itself, we may feel intense feelings of loss tied to our cultural
and social identity, as well. The loss of our personal world, of a sense of safety, of belief
in ourselves, in the trustworthiness of others or even in the benevolence of God are not
just thoughts; they trigger deep feelings of loss and grief.
In the days and weeks following the disaster, we may experience a wide variety of
emotional disturbances. For some, chronic grief, depression, anxiety, or guilt dominate.
For others, difficulties controlling anger, suspiciousness, irritability and hostility prevail.
Yet others avoid or withdraw from other people. For many, sleep is disturbed by
nightmares, the waking hours by flashbacks in which they feel as if the disaster is
happening all over again. Not a few begin to abuse drugs or alcohol.
There may be cultural variations in the precise patterns in which disaster-related
symptoms appear, but reports from countries as diverse as China, Japan, Sri Lanka,
Mexico, Colombia, Armenia, Rwanda, South Africa, the Philippines, Fiji, Bosnia,
England, Australia, and the United States, among others, show that the emotional
responses to disaster are broadly similar everywhere in the world.
Secondary Traumatization: It is not only those who directly experience the
disaster (the “primary” victims) who feel its emotional effects. “Secondary victims” – the
families of those directly affected, onlookers and observers, and relief workers (both
paid and volunteer) who seek to rescue the primary victims also may experience serious
emotional effects. Medical and mental health workers and relief officials who
subsequently work with the primary and secondary victims are constantly exposed to the
physical and emotional effects of the disaster on others and may themselves be victims of
“vicarious traumatization.” Even those investigating the disaster – journalists, relief
organization workers doing needs assessments, human rights workers – may be
The “Second Disaster”: The primary source of emotional trauma is, of course, the
disaster itself. But the sources of traumatization do not end when the disaster is over (in a
literal sense) and when the victims have been rescued. After the disaster comes “the
second disaster”-- the effects of the response to the disaster.
The rapid influx of well-meaning helpers, who must be fed and sheltered, adds to
the confusion and the competition for scarce resources. In some instances, poor people
from outside the disaster area have flooded into a disaster area seeking their own share of
the food and other supplies relief agencies are providing to disaster victims. This still
further increases the burden on disaster workers and on the already stricken community.
Those forced to take refuge in a shelter or a refugee camp for shorter or longer
periods of time are forced to confront the consequences of the disaster in an ongoing,
unrelenting way. To personal and material losses, we now add loss of privacy, loss of
community, loss of independence, loss of familiarity with the environment, and loss of
certainty with respect to the future. Family roles and ordinary work roles are disrupted.
Poor sanitation, inadequate shelter, and contaminated water and food may produce
epidemics, with widespread illness and death resulting. In the shelter, personal assaults
and rapes may endanger women, the elderly, and other vulnerable people.
As the weeks and months go by, anger at the slowness of reconstruction or at
corruption that prevents relief supplies from getting to victims may add to distress. In
some instances, such as Nicaragua after the 1972 earthquake and Mexico after the 1985
earthquake, such dissatisfaction produced widespread political unrest.
Delayed Effects of Disaster: Some emotional effects of the disaster may not
appear until after a considerable delay. For some victims, initial relief at having been
rescued and initial optimism about the prospects of recovery may produce a “honeymoon
stage.” Over a period of months or even years, this may give way to a realization that
personal and material losses are irreversible. Loved ones who died will not return.
Disruptions in the family are permanent. Old jobs will not reappear. A long-term
reduction in standard of living has occurred. Depression and anxiety may now appear for
the first time in some victims, and the suicide rate may actually rise.
Other victims of disaster appear initially to be “doing well.” This may be illusory,
however. To protect themselves, they may suppress or inhibit the processing of the
impact of the disaster upon them. After a delay (considerable at times), stimuli associated
with the disaster may trigger memories, pulling previously suppressed material back into
consciousness. As a result, psychological responses to the disaster may “suddenly”
appear, months or even years afterward.
The Prevalence of Adverse Psychological Effects Following Disaster
Although the precise figures vary from situation to situation, up to ninety per cent
or even more of victims can be expected to exhibit at least some untoward psychological
effects in the hours immediately following a disaster. In most instances, symptoms
gradually subside over the weeks following. By twelve weeks after the disaster, however,
twenty to fifty per cent or even more may still show significant signs of distress. The
number showing symptoms generally continues to drop, but delayed responses and
responses to the later consequences of disaster continue to appear. While most victims of
disasters are usually relatively free of distress by a year or two after the event, a quarter
or more of the victims may still show significant symptoms while others, who had
previously been free of symptoms, may first show distress a year or two after the disaster.
Anniversaries of the disaster may be especially difficult times for many survivors, with
temporary but unexpected reappearance of symptoms which they had thought were safely
in the past. Reports of widespread emotional distress ten years and more after disasters
such as the 1972 flood at Buffalo Creek (USA) and internment in Nazi concentration
camps have been well substantiated.
The extraordinary prevalence of such strong physiological, cognitive, and
emotional responses to disasters indicates that these are normal responses to an extreme
situation, not a sign of “mental illness” or of “moral weakness.” Nevertheless, the
symptoms experienced by many victims in the days and weeks following a disaster are a
source of significant distress and may interfere with their ability to reconstruct their lives.
If not addressed and resolved relatively quickly, such reactions can become ongoing
sources of distress and dysfunction, with devastating effects for the individual, their
family, and their society.
Factors Affecting Vulnerability to Adverse Psychological Effects
Not everyone is equally affected by a disaster, and not all disasters are equally
devastating in psychological terms. Several factors may increase the risk of adverse
psychological consequences:
The more severe the disaster and the more terrifying or extreme the experiences of the
individual, the greater the likelihood widespread and lasting psychological effects. In
extreme cases (e.g., the Nazi concentration camps, the Rwandan genocide, the
Cambodian “killing fields”), virtually everybody exposed to the traumatic events
suffers lasting effects.
Some types of disaster may be more likely to produce adverse effects than others. In
general, the psychological consequences of disasters which are intentionally inflicted
by others (e.g., assaults, terrorist attack, war) are likely to be greater than those of
disasters which may have been produced by human activities but which are
unintentional (e.g., airplane crashes, industrial explosions). These in turn have a
greater likelihood of producing adverse effects than purely natural disasters (e.g.,
hurricanes, tornadoes).
Women (especially mothers of young children), children aged five to ten, and people
with a prior history of mental illness or poor social adjustment appear to be more
vulnerable than other groups. (See Chapter II for an extended discussion of the impact
of disaster on women, children, and several other specific groups).Those with a prior
personal experience of trauma, whether individual (e.g., rape) or collective (e.g.,
earthquake, genocide) are also usually more vulnerable.
Several specific kinds of disaster experience are especially traumatic. These include
witnessing the death of a loved one, losing an adolescent or young adult child, being
entombed or trapped or seriously injured as a result of the disaster, and being
seriously injured or hospitalized as a result of the disaster.
In addition to the “psychological” effects of disasters, some of the physical effects
(e.g., head injuries, burns, crush injuries, exposure to toxins, prolonged pain) can
directly produce, through physiological processes, adverse psychological effects such
as difficulty concentrating, memory difficulties, depression, and emotional instability.
Refugees from war, political oppression, or political violence are also at high risk of
adverse effects. In addition to the effect of the events that may have driven them from
their homes, negative experiences in shelters and refugee camps (e.g., malnutrition,
widespread infectious disease, rape and other physical assaults) may themselves
produce adverse psychological effects and psychological disorders.
“Stigmatization” of the victims of a disaster makes healing more difficult. One
unfortunately common situation in which this occurs is when part of the traumatizing
experience has been rape. In many modern wars, rape has been used as a weapon of
war. Rape is also a major hazard for women in refugee camps. Victims may be unable
to tell their families and friends what happened, for fear of being blamed or even
Conversely, the availability of social support networks – supportive families, friends,
and communities – reduces the likelihood of lasting adverse effects. And those who
have successfully coped with trauma in the past may withstand subsequent disasters
better, as if they had been “inoculated” against stress. For a minority of victims, the
challenge of disaster may actually be positive and may lead to increased ability to
deal with future life challenges.
The more severe the disaster, the less the characteristics of individuals matter. In very
severe disasters, virtually everybody shows adverse emotional responses. In relatively
mild disasters, differences in vulnerability of different individuals may be of greater
It is customary to conceptualize the aftermath of disaster in terms of a series of
stages or phases, each of which has its own characteristics. The phases, we hasten to say,
are not rigid. There is much variation at each stage and the stages overlap.
The “Rescue” Stage
In the first hours or days after the disaster, most relief activity is focused on rescuing
victims and seeking to stabilize the situation. Victims must be housed, clothed, given
medical attention, provided with food and water.
During the rescue stage, various types of emotional response may be seen. Victims may
shift from one kind of response to another or may not show a “typical” response of any
evident response at all.
Psychic “numbing”: Victims may seem stunned, dazed, confused, apathetic.
Superficial calmness is followed by denial or attempts to isolate themselves. Victims
may report feelings of unreality: “This is not happening.” They may respond to
helpers in a passive, docile way, or may be rebellious and antagonistic as they try to
regain a sense of personal control. There may be an automaton-like carrying on of
daily activities.This response pattern is usually transient and may be followed by (or
preceded by) heightened arousal (see below).
Heightened arousal: Victims may experience intense feelings of fear, accompanied by
physiological arousal: heart pounding, muscle tension, muscular pains,
gastrointestinal disturbances. They may engage in excessive activity and may express
a variety of rational or irrational fears. This response pattern is likely to be transient
and may be followed by (or preceded by) psychic numbing (see above).
Diffuse anxiety: Victims may show diffuse signs of anxiety: an exaggerated startle
response, inability to relax, inability to make decisions. They may express feelings of
abandonment, anxiety about separation from loved ones, a loss of a sense of safety,
and yearning for relief.
Survivor guilt: Victims may blame themselves or feel shame at having survived,
when others didn’t. There may be a pre-occupation with thoughts about the disaster
and rumination over their own activities: Could they have acted differently? They
may feel responsible for the unfortunate fate of others.
Conflicts over nurturance: Victims may be dependent on others, yet suspicious, and
may feel no one can understand what they have been through. Some victims may feel
a need to distance themselves emotionally from others and to keep a “stiff upper lip;”
they may be irritable in the face of sympathy. Others may feel a strong desire to be
with others at all times.
Ambivalence: Some victims may show ambivalence about learning what happened to
their families or possessions.
Affective and cognitive instability: Some victims may show sudden anger and
aggressiveness, or, conversely, apathy and lack of energy and ability to mobilize
themselves. They may be forgetful or cry easily. Feelings of vulnerability and
illusions about what happened are common.
Occasionally, victims appear in an acutely confusional state. Hysterical reactions and
psychotic symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and
grossly disorganized behavior may also appear. These may be isolated and very short
lived or may constitute a “Brief Reactive Psychosis.”
Most victims act appropriately, to protect themselves and their loved ones. In most
disasters, despite mythology to the contrary, victims show little panic and may engage
in heroic or altruistic acts.
Many of these behaviors have an adaptive quality. The behaviors of the majority
of those affected by disaster, even when they seem abnormally intense or entirely
unfamiliar, should be understood as normal reactions to abnormal or devastating
conditions or events. They ensure short term survival and permit the victim to take in
information at a controllable rate. But the symptoms themselves may be perceived by the
victims as socially inappropriate, as a source of shame, guilt, and failure, as an evidence
of inadequacy. Caregivers and rescue workers, in turn, may respond with irritation or
withdrawal from the victims.
The “Inventory” Stage
Once the situation has been stabilized, attention turns to longer-term solutions. Heroic
rescue efforts give way to bureaucratized forms of help. Over the next year or eighteen
months, organized assistance from outside gradually diminishes and the reality of their
losses dawn on victims.
In the first weeks after the disaster, victims may go through a “honeymoon” phase,
characterized by relief at being safe and optimism about the future. But in the weeks that
follow, they must make a more realistic appraisal of the lasting consequences of the
disaster. Disillusionment may set in. The effects of the “second disaster” are felt.
During this phase, any of a wide variety of post-traumatic symptoms appear. Any
of these symptoms may appear in isolation, but frequently victims show a number of
these symptoms. Several distinct clusters of symptoms are common. Several of these –“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” “Abnormal
Bereavement,” “Post Traumatic Depression” -- deserve special attention. In addition,
many patterns restricted to particular cultures may appear.
Post-traumatic Symptoms
grief, mourning, depression, despair, hopelessness
anxiety, nervousness, being frightened easily, worrying
disorientation, confusion
rigidity and obsessiveness, or vacillation and ambivalence
feelings of helplessness and vulnerability
dependency, clinging; or, alternately, social withdrawal
suspiciousness, hypervigilance, fear of harm, paranoia
sleep disturbances: insomnia, bad dreams, nightmares
irritability, hostility, anger
moodiness, sudden outbursts of emotion
difficulties concentrating; memory loss
somatic complaints: headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, sweats and chills, tremors,
fatigue, hair loss, changes in menstrual cycle, loss of sexual desire, changes in
hearing or vision, diffuse muscular pain
intrusive thoughts: flashbacks, feeling one is “re-living” the experience, often
accompanied by anxiety
avoidance of thoughts about the disaster and avoidance of places, pictures, sounds
reminding the victim of the disaster; avoidance of discussion about it
problems in interpersonal functioning; increased marital conflict
increased drug and alcohol use
cognitive complaints: difficulty concentrating, remembering; slowness of thinking;
difficulty making decisions and planning
feeling isolated, abandoned
“dissociative” experiences: feelings of being detached from one’s body or from one’s
experiences, as if they are not happening to you; feeling things seem “unreal;” feeling
as if one is “living in a dream”
feelings of ineffectiveness, shame, despair
self-destructive and impulsive behavior
suicidal ideation or attempts
the “death imprint”: pre-occupation with images of death
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: The characteristic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder include:
(a) Persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event : recurrent and intrusive
recollections of the events of the disaster; recurrent distressing dreams in which
the disaster is replayed; intense psychological distress or physiological reactivity
on exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of
the traumatic event; or experiences in which the victim acts or feels as if the event
is actually re-occurring. (in children, repetitive play in which themes or aspects of
the trauma are expressed may occur; trauma-specific re-enactments of the events
may take place, and there may be frightening dreams without recognizable
(b) Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and continued
numbing of general responsiveness: efforts to avoid thoughts or feelings or
conversations about the disaster; efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that
remind the victim of the trauma; inability to recall important parts of the disaster
experience; markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities;
feelings of detachment or estrangement from others; restricted range of affect; or
a sense of a foreshortened future, without expectations of a normal life span or
(c) Persistent symptoms of increased arousal: difficulty falling or staying asleep;
irritability or outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; hypervigilance;
exaggerated startle response.
This general cluster of symptoms has been reported in every part of the world. In
less industrialized parts of the world and among people coming from these areas, the
avoidance and numbing symptoms have been reported to be less common and
dissociative and trance-like states, in which components of the event are relived and the
person behaves as though experiencing the events at that moment, may be more common.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: The characteristic symptoms of Generalized Anxiety
Disorder include:
(a) Persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of events or
activities (not exclusively about the disaster and its consequences
(b) The person finds it difficult to control the worry and the worry is far out of
proportion to reality. It interferes with attention to tasks at hand.
(c) The anxiety and worry are associated with symptoms such as restlessness or
feeling on edge; being easily fatigued; difficulty concentrating or the mind going
blank; irritability; muscle tension; and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Although individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder may not always identify
their worries as “excessive,” they report subjective distress due to their constant worry
and it may affect them in social, occupational, marital, or other areas of function. Somatic
symptoms (e.g., cold clammy hands, dry mouth, nausea or diarrhea, urinary frequency)
and depressive symptoms are also commonly present.
There is considerable cultural variation in how anxiety is expressed. In some cultures, it
may be expressed more through somatic symptoms, in others through cognitive
symptoms. Children may reveal their anxieties through concern about their competence,
(e.g., at school), excessive concerns about punctuality, over-zealousness in seeking
approval, and a conforming, perfectionistic personal style.
Abnormal Bereavement: Normally, after the death of a loved one, a sequence of stages
of bereavement are expected. Often the first response is disbelief and denial. Feelings of
numbness may give respite and allow the realization to seep in slowly. Then, as we begin
to realize the reality and significance of the loss, feeling of distress, yearning for the lost
person, anger at the loss, and anxiety at one’s ability to cope without them may appear. A
period of mourning ensues, as we review our memories of the lost loved one, and then
gradually let go of the psychological bonds and free ourselves for life without the
departed person. All cultures have rituals that, however much they vary, seem intended to
facilitate this process.
Trauma may interfere with the ability to go through this process normally,
however. The victim’s own injuries, the loss of social supports and familiar communities,
survivor guilt, and the victim’s own psychological trauma may interfere with both
expected rituals and internal grieving processes. Memories of the deceased may trigger
the victim’s own memories of the disaster. Post-traumatic rumination may block the
victim from confronting the memories and thoughts that are central to grieving. Posttraumatic numbing may interfere with the victim’s engaging in supportive social
There may be other, practical obstacles to saying goodbye, as well. For instance,
legal processes may delay funeral proceedings or concerns about the bereaved seeing the
body of the deceased due to injuries it may have sustained in the disaster may lead to the
bereaved not having the opportunity to view the body. Most studies have indicated that
not seeing the body of the deceased may contribute to abnormal bereavement and that
seeing the body, even when it is disfigured, is not inherently damaging. Few victims who
have been allowed to see the remains and have accepted the offer regret doing so.
These psychological and practical obstacles to a “normal” response to the death of
a loved one may contribute to a feeling of lack of closure or permit magical fantasies that
the deceased person has not, in fact, died. Any of several abnormal bereavement
syndromes may appear. (Note: Different cultures vary widely with respect to what is
“expected” after the death of a loved one. Among some peoples, open expression of
emotion is frowned upon. Among others, public displays of emotion are expected and
lack of overtly expressed emotion is suspect. In some cultures, people are expected to
publicly grieve only briefly and then to return to normal activities. In others, a prolonged
grieving period is expected. Evaluation of the significance of the following patterns
depends on an awareness of what the cultural norms are in the particular culture).
(a) Inhibited grief: The bereaved exhibits a pattern characterized by psychic
numbing, over-control and containment of emotions, little display of affect. They
may be seen as “coping well,” yet this pattern is associated with later depression
and anxiety.
(b) Distorted grief: The bereaved shows intense anger and hostility which
dominate over their sadness and guilt. This anger may be directed at anyone the
bereaved associates with the deceased’s death (e.g., relief workers).
(c) Chronic grief: The feelings of sadness and loss do not dissipate. Frequent
crying, pre-occupation with the loss are unremitting.
d) Depression: The bereaved lapses into depression, with prolonged grief, despair,
and a sense that life is not worth continuing. Sleep and appetite disturbances may
appear. The bereaved may have active fantasies of being reunited with the
deceased and suicidal ideation or attempts may occur.
(e) Excessive guilt: The bereaved may show excessive self-recrimination and
guilty pre-occupations, which eclipse their sadness. Self destructive, yet not
overtly suicidal behaviors, such as frequent accidents or excessive drinking may
Post Traumatic Depression: Protracted depression is one of the most common findings
in studies of acutely or chronically traumatized people. It often occurs in combination
with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Trauma can produce or exacerbate already existing
Common symptoms of depression include sadness, slowness of movement,
insomnia (or hypersomnia), fatigue or loss of energy, diminished appetite (or excessive
appetite), difficulties with concentration, apathy and feelings of helplessness, anhedonia
(markedly diminished interest or pleasure in life activities), social withdrawal, guilty
ruminations, feelings of hopelessness, abandonment, and irrevocable life change,
preoccupations with loss, and irritability. In some cases, the person may deny being sad
or may complain, instead, of feeling “blah” or having “no feelings.” Some individuals
report somatic complaints, including widespread aches and pains, rather than sadness.
Suicidal ideation or attempts may appear. With children, somatic complaints, irritability,
social withdrawal are particularly common.
In some cultures, depression may be experienced largely in somatic terms, rather
than in the form of sadness or guilt. Complaints of “nerves”, headaches, generalized
chronic pain, weakness, tiredness, “imbalance,” problems of the “heart,” feelings of
“heat,” or concerns about being hexed or bewitched may appear.
Culture-specific disorders: The boundaries between anxiety, depression, dissociation,
and emotional disorders that have predominantly somatic symptoms are very porous.
Victims often have symptoms running across these categories. In many societies and
cultural groups, traditional patterns of expression of emotional distress take the form of
combinations of symptoms that have no exact equivalent in standard international
categories of mental illness. The intermediate term response to disaster may take the form
of one of these “culture-specific disorders.” These may include, for example, susto and
ataques de nervios (Latin America and the Caribbean), amok (the South Pacific), dhat
(India), latah (Southeast Asia and the South Pacific), and khoucheraug (Cambodia). 2
In many parts of the world, the conventional idiom for expressing emotion may be
somatic (e.g., chronic fatigue, generalized aches and pains, gastrointestinal disturbances,
feelings of “heat)” or fears of somatic illness (e.g. hypochondriasis, fears of infection). In
some cultural groups, the distress of a disaster may also take the form of a “trance
disorder.” A “trance” is a temporary, marked alteration in the state of consciousness or a
loss of the customary sense of personal identity, associated with either stereotyped
behaviors or movements that are experienced as beyond one’s control or by a narrowing
of awareness of one’s immediate surroundings.
The “Reconstruction” stage
A year or more after the disaster, the focus shifts again. A new, stable pattern of life may
have emerged. In any event, the distinction between disaster relief and the larger pattern
of national social and economic development begins to diminish and eventually
During this phase, although many victims may have recovered on their own, a
substantial number continue to show symptoms much like those of the preceding
(“inventory”) stage. A significant number who were not symptomatic earlier may now
exhibit serious symptoms of anxiety and depression, as the reality and permanence of
their losses becomes evident. The risk of suicide may actually increase at this time. Other
characteristic late-appearing symptoms include chronic fatigue, chronic gastrointestinal
symptoms, inability to work, loss of interest in daily activities, and difficulty thinking
The notion of “post traumatic stress disorder” described earlier derives mainly
from observations of the symptoms of survivors of relatively circumscribed traumatic
events. A number of studies suggest that more complex syndromes may appear in
survivors of prolonged, repeated, intense trauma, such as those who have been held
Susto is prevalent among some Latinos in the United States and among people in Mexico, Central
America, and South America. Typical symptoms include appetite disturbances, inadequate or excessive
sleep, troubled sleep or dreams, feelings of sadness, lack of motivation, feelings of low self-worth, and
somatic symptoms. Ataques de nervios is recognized among many Latin American, Latin Mediterranean,
and Caribbean Latinos. Commonly reported symptoms include uncontrollable shouting, attacks of crying,
trembling, heat in the chest rising into the head, verbal and physical aggression, a sense of being out of
control, and sometimes dissociative experiences, seizure-like or fainting episodes, and suicidal gestures.
Amok is recognized in Malaysia and, under varying names, in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.
It is described as a dissociative episode characterized by a period of brooding followed by an outburst of
violent, aggressive, or homicidal behavior directed at people and objects, ending with exhaustion. Dhat is a
term used in India to describe a syndrome of severe anxiety, headaches and body aches, loss of appetite,
hypochondriacal concerns associated with the discharge of semen, and feelings of weakness and
exhaustion. Latah, found under various names in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, involves
hypersensitivity to sudden fright, often with an apparently senseless and automatic repetition of the words
or actions of others and dissociative or trance-like behavior. Khoucheraug , found in Cambodia, includes
excessive worry and rumination over past events.
hostage, who have been repeatedly tortured or exposed to chronic personal physical or
sexual abuse, who have been interned in a concentration camp, or who have lived for
months or years in a society in a chronic state of civil war.
Among victims of such disasters, a “survivor syndrome” may appear. People
showing this syndrome have been described as walking though life “without a spark.”
Chronic depression, anxiety, and survivor guilt appear, or, alternately, chronic aggression
and an “addiction to hate.” Social withdrawal, sleep disturbances, somatic complaints,
chronic fatigue, emotional lability, loss of initiative, and general social, personal, and
sexual maladaptatian are present. The “joy of life” is gone, replaced by a “pervasive
pattern of sluggish despair.” Relationships with spouses and children are disturbed, often
creating significant disturbances in later generations.
Other victims of prolonged or repeated and severe traumas have been described as
exhibiting “complex post-traumatic stress disorder.” Symptoms of “complex posttraumatic stress disorder” include:
difficulties in regulating affect (e.g., persistent depression, suicidal
preoccupation, self-injury, explosive anger)
alternations in self perception (e.g., shame, guilt, sense of defilement, a sense
of difference from others or helplessness)
alterations in consciousness (e.g., amnesia, transient dissociative states,
intrusive thoughts, ruminative preoccupations)
difficulties in relations with others (e.g., isolation, disruption in intimate
relationships, persistent distrust)
disruptions in systems of meaning (e.g., loss of faith, a sense of hopelessness
and despair)
alterations in perceptions of the perpetrator of the atrocities (e.g., a
preoccupation with revenge, unrealistic attributions of total power to the
perpetrator, or, paradoxically, gratitude toward the perpetrator).
Disasters directly affect their individual victims. But beyond that disasters create
tears in the tissue of social life. Sometimes this is direct and total, as when, as a result of
disaster, people are forced to leave their land and migrate elsewhere. In other cases, the
rapid influx of helpers, the presence of government officials, press, and other outsiders
(including mere curiosity seekers), the flood of poor people from outside the disaster area
into a disaster area seeking their own share of the food and other supplies relief agencies
are providing to disaster victims, combine to further disrupt the community.
Even when the formal structure of a community is maintained, the disaster can
disrupt the bonds holding people together, in families, communities, work groups, and
whole societies. When those bonds are destroyed, the individuals comprising the affected
groups lose friends, neighbors, a community, a social identity. These collective effects of
disaster may ultimately be as devastating as the individual effects. The consequences of
disaster for families, neighborhoods, communities, and societies are many:
Family dynamics may be altered. Disaster-produced deaths or disabilities, family
separations, and dependency on aid givers may undercut the authority of the traditional
breadwinners, supplant traditional activities in the home, and force people out of
traditional roles or into new ones. Symptoms of individual family members affect their
interactions with other family members. The intimate penetration of a community by
outsiders may upset or challenge traditional child rearing practices and traditional
patterns of male-female relationships. In the wake of disaster, marital conflict and distress
rises; increases in the divorce rate in the months following disasters may occur. Parentchild conflicts also increase. Increases in intra-family violence (child abuse, spouse
abuse) have been reported.
Disasters may physically destroy important community institutions, such as
schools and churches, or may disrupt their functioning due to the direct effects of the
disaster on people responsible for these institutions, such as teachers or priests.
Traditional patterns of authority are disrupted along with customary social controls on
individual behavior. Several studies have shown an increase in the rates of community
violence, aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, and rate of legal convictions in the wake of
Disasters disrupt the ability of communities to carry out customary or traditional
activities central to people’s individual, community, and social identity, ranging from
work and recreational activities to accustomed rituals. Some of these disruptions are
temporary, but others are hard to reverse. For example, a flood may permanently damage
farm land, making a return to traditional farming untenable, or an oil spill off the coast
may permanently alter traditional fishing grounds. With people forced away from their
homes and land for shorter or longer periods and with personal and community records
lost due to a disaster, opportunities appear for looting. This may be limited to personal
possessions or may lead to permanent loss of tools, animals, and land. The community
whose members can no longer farm their traditional land, carry out traditonal craft
production activities, or hunt or fish in traditional ways is disrupted and its sense of
identity attacked.
Disasters place a strain on traditional community social roles, patterns of social
status, and leadership. Police, local housing agencies, local health facilities are
overwhelmed and face a new task of integrating their work with that of volunteers, often
from outside the community. There may be anger at inequities in the distribution of postdisaster aid. These inequities may exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. Outside aid
agencies may threaten the traditional roles of local agencies and institutions. Outside
experts may pose a threat to local professionals. In the wake of disaster, new leaders may
emerge in a community, due to the role of these people in responding to the disaster.
Conflicts between these new leaders and traditional community leaders may appear.
Outside assistance may be necessary in the wake of a disaster, but it can also
promote a sense of community dependency. Insofar as the necessities of life are supplied
from outside, incentives to resume traditional work activities are reduced. This is not just
a matter of psychological “dependency.” Provision of food and other supplies may
compete with local production, disrupting traditional pricing and wages and damaging
attempts to recreate the old productive patterns. Added to this, the disaster itself may
have destroyed the tools, workshops, animals, or other necessities of production.
Disaster may lead, directly or indirectly, to permanent changes in productive
patterns, especially patterns of land ownership and use. Shifts from subsistence
agriculture to wage labor, land looting, migration and uprooting and resettlement play a
Schisms may appear in a community, as cohesion is lost. One danger is that of
scapegoating, either of individuals or using traditional divisions in the community (e.g.,
along religious or ethnic lines).
In communities with a history of past disaster, whether naturally caused or manmade, the trauma produced by a new disaster may re-arouse old feelings. Memories of
genocide, civil war, social oppression, or racial or ethnic division and of the feelings they
produced, and feelings of marginalization and helplessness may be exacerbated.
In some communities that have had to deal with repeated natural disasters such as
flooding, on a more or less regular basis, disaster and the response to it may be integrated
into community rituals and belief systems, as well as into community structure and
people may ascribe cultural meaning to disasters. Communities may have traditional
rituals for dealing with the effects of disaster. Not only the disaster, but outside
intervention may interfere with these traditional rituals, responses, and attributions of
meaning and may be experienced as an ambiguous blessing or even as a source of
additional stress.
Disasters have impacts on individuals, families and communities. These are not
distinct, separable effects. The devastating effects of disaster on the individuals making
up a family or a community play a major role in creating the family and community
effects. Even more important, social support systems play an extremely important role in
protecting individuals from the impact of the disaster and from the impact of stress in
general. Social disruption both reduces and interferes with the healing effects of the
family and the community and is itself an enormous source of stress on the individuals
who make up the family or community. Disruption of the family or community may be
more psychologically devastating, both in the short run and especially in the long run,
than the disaster itself.
Disasters do not affect everyone in the same way. At an individual level, some
may experience a disaster with few or no psychological consequences, while others will
go through the same disaster and be emotionally devastated. Beyond individual variation,
certain categories of people are especially vulnerable or vulnerable in specific ways.
People’s responses to emergencies are grounded in their on-going relationships
with their community. Differences in power or access to power and different pre-disaster
stressors and pre-disaster social roles affect how individuals experience a disaster. In
general, those with the least power and resources are most exposed to the adverse effects
of the disaster and its aftermath and have a harder time recovering from it. Pre-disaster
high levels of stress, lack of resources, lack of information, lack of access to power, lack
of access to transportation, lack of marketable skills, lack of literacy, all take their toll.
For example, structural changes in the world economy have adversely affected
women in many societies, reducing their standard of living, undermining their householdbased security, and intensifying their load of paid and/or unpaid work. For impoverished,
uprooted peasants, urbanization may mean less substantial housing, relocation to more
environmentally dangerous locales (e.g., flood plains, mudslide-prone hillsides), and
exposure to toxic materials. Ethnic tensions, manageable before a disaster, may become
the source of scapegoating and acute ethnic conflict in the wake of disaster. To the degree
that inequality in the impact of disaster is rooted in the unresolved dilemmas of global
political, economic, and social development, issues of social justice and sustainable
development can be understood as disaster preparedness and response issues.
In this chapter, we focus on practical issues specific to each of several groups –
their health care needs, legal rights, compensation issues, employment and selfemployment issues, and the like, as well as psychological issues. This discussion should
not be understood in too rigid a fashion. Not everyone in a given category has the
experiences described, and an individual may fall into more than one group (e.g., be
female and aged). They are intended to alert the reader to some issues that may apply.
Goals, experience, and needs must be assessed on an individual basis.
Two myths are potential barriers to recognizing children’s responses to disaster
and must be rejected: (1) that children are innately resilient and will recover rapidly,
even from severe trauma; and (2) that children, especially young children, are not
affected by disaster unless they are disturbed by their parents’ responses. Both of these
beliefs are false. A wealth of evidence indicates that children experience the effects of
disaster doubly. Even very young children are directly affected by experiences of death,
destruction, terror, personal physical assault, and by experiencing the absence or
powerlessness of their parents. They are also indirectly affected through identification
with the effects of the disaster on their parents and other trusted adults (such as teachers)
and by their parents’ reactions to the disaster.
Another barrier to recognizing children’s responses to disaster is the tendency of
parents to misinterpret their children’s reactions. To parents who are already under
stress, a child’s withdrawal, regression, or misconduct may be understood as willful. Or,
parents may not wish to be reminded of their own trauma or, seeking some small
evidences that their life is again back in control, may have a need to see everything as “all
right.” In either case, they may ignore or deny evidence of their children’s distress. The
child, in turn, may feel ignored, not validated, not nurtured. This may have long term
consequences for the child’s development. In the short run, feeling insecure, the child
may inhibit expression of his or her own feelings, lest he or she distress and drive away
the parents even more.
Most children respond sensibly and appropriately to disaster, especially if they
experience the protection, support, and stability of their parents and other trusted adults.
However, like adults, they may respond to disaster with a wide range of symptoms. Their
responses are generally similar to those of adults, although they may appear in more
direct, less disguised form.
Among pre-school children (ages 1-5), anxiety symptoms may appear in
generalized form as fears about separation, fears of strangers, fears of “monsters” or
animals, or sleep disturbances. The child may also avoid specific situations or
environments, which may or may not have obvious links to the disaster. The child may
appear pre-occupied with words or symbols that may or may not be associated with the
disaster in obvious ways or may engage in compulsively repetitive play which represents
part of the disaster experience. The child may show a limited expression of emotion or a
constricted pattern of play may appear. He or she may withdraw socially or may lose
previously acquired developmental skills (e.g., toilet training).
Older children (ages 6-11 or so) may engage in repetitious play in which the child
reenacts parts of the disaster or in repeated retelling of the story of the disaster. The child
may express (openly or subtly) concerns about safety and preoccupation with danger.
Sleep disturbances, irritability, or aggressive behavior and angry outbursts may appear.
The child may pay close attention to his or her parents’ worries or seem to worry
excessively about family members and friends. School avoidance (possibly in the form of
somatic symptoms) may appear. The child may show separation anxiety with primary
caretakers, “magical” explanations to fill in gaps in understanding, and other behaviors
usually characteristic of much younger children. Other changes in behavior, mood, and
personality, obvious anxiety and fearfulness, withdrawal, loss of interest in activities,
and “spacey” or distractible behavior may appear.
As children approach adolescence, their responses become increasingly like adult
responses. Greater levels of aggressive behaviors, defiance of parents, delinquency,
substance abuse, and risk-taking behaviors may be evident. School performance may
decline. Wishes for revenge may be expressed. Adolescents are especially unlikely to
seek out counseling.
Children of all ages are strongly affected by the responses of their parents or other
caretakers to disaster. Children are especially vulnerable to feeling abandoned when they
are separated from or lose their parents. “Protecting” children by sending them away
from the scene of the disaster, thus separating them from their loved ones, adds the
trauma of separation to the trauma of disaster.
Symptoms Shown by School-Aged Children
generalized fear, including nightmares, highly specific phobias of stimuli
associated with the disaster
aggressiveness, “acting out”
resentfulness, suspiciousness, irritability
disorganized, “agitated” behavior
somatic complaints: headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, general aches and
pains. These may be revealed by a pattern of repeated school absences.
difficulties with concentration
intrusive memories and thoughts and sensations, which may be especially likely
to appear when the child is bored or at rest or when falling asleep
repetitive dreams
loss of a sense of control and of responsibility
loss of a sense of a future
loss of a sense of individuality and identity
loss of a sense of reasonable expectations with respect to interpersonal
loss of a realistic sense of when he or she is vulnerable or in danger
feelings of shame
ritual re-enactments of aspects of the disaster in play or drawing or story telling.
In part, this can be understood as an attempt at mastery. Drawings may have
images of trauma and bizarre expressions of unconscious imagery, with many
elaborations and repetitions.
Kinesthetic (bodily) re-enactments of aspects of the disaster; repetitive gestures or
responses to stress reenacting those of the disaster
omen formation: the child comes to believe that certain “signs’ preceding the
disaster were warnings and that he or she should be alert for future signs of
regression: bed wetting, soiling, clinging, heightened separation anxiety.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder syndromes much like those of adults, although
possibly with less amnesia, avoidance, and numbing evident.
For an adult, although the effects of disaster may be profound and lasting, they
take place in an already formed personality. For children, the effects are magnified by the
fact that the child’s personality is still developing. The child has to construct his or her
identity within a framework of the psychological damage done by the disaster. When the
symptoms produced by disaster are not treated, or when the disaster is ongoing, either
because of the destruction wrought (e.g., by an earthquake) or because the source of
trauma is itself chronic (e.g., war or relocation to a refugee camp), the consequences are
even more grave. The child grows up with fear and anxiety, with the experience of
destruction or cruelty or violence, with separations from home and family. Childhood
itself, with its normal play, love, and affection, is lost. Longer-term responses of children
who have been chronically traumatized may include a defensive desensitization. They
seem cold, insensitive, lacking in emotion in daily life. Violence may come to be seen as
the norm, legitimate. A sense of a meaningful future is lost.
Women’s roles and experiences create special vulnerability in the face of disaster.
In poorer countries, women are more likely to die in disasters than men are. In richer
countries, as well, women often show higher rates of post disaster psychological distress
– depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Several aspects of women’s experience of disaster may
contribute to these results:
Women are often assigned the role of family caregivers. As such, they must stay
with and assist other family members. This may affect their willingness to leave their
homes when a disaster (such as a storm) threatens. While their own threshold for leaving
may actually be lower than men’s, their actual willingness to go may depend on their
being able to leave with their children.
Women may be more isolated and home-bound, due to their traditional roles and
occupations. As a result, they may have less access to information (both before a disaster
and after). They may also be more vulnerable to the physical effects of a disaster on their
house itself, both with respect to their physical safety and to the integrity of their work
In the aftermath of disaster, women may face another threat: violence. This threat
may take several forms. Within the immediate family, disaster may initially lead all
members of the family to unite in their efforts to deal with the crisis. Over the course of
weeks or months, however, the continued strain may be divisive. As family stress
mounts, women may become more exposed to physical or emotional abuse from their
spouse. Other women, who have previously fled their marriage to avoid beatings, may be
inadvertently re-exposed to their abusers (e.g., in shelters). Women may also be exposed
to rape and other forms of violence in shelters or refugee camps. In war situations,
women and girls may be specifically targeted.
Post-disaster, women often get less assistance. Their husband, as “head” of the
household, often becomes the conduit for assistance to the family, which may or may not
be equitably shared within the family. In some instances of food shortage, women have
been given the lowest priority for getting a portion of what food is available.
Discrimination with respect to food and medical attention in shelters has also been a
problem in some instances. Health care facilities in shelters and refugee camps often do
not attend to women’s needs with regard to reproductive health, and providing for relief
of other sources of strain on women, such as responsibilities for childcare, often get a low
In the aftermath of disaster, women who have been widowed by the disaster may
find it harder to remarry than men. Lacking skills that are saleable in the paid job market,
they may be left destitute. Alternately, husbands may leave the disaster community,
seeking paid work elsewhere, leaving their wives more dependent on outside assistance
and more isolated.
The experience of women in disaster, it should be emphasized, can create
opportunities for women, as well. Women may have better social networks and hence,
more social support than men. They may emerge as the leaders of grass-roots level
organizations. They may be able to use disaster aid to develop skills and acquire tools and
take on non-traditional roles. These changes are not without risk, however, since they
may lead to intrafamily conflict.
Reports on the responses of the elderly to disaster are inconsistent. In some
disasters, they seem no more vulnerable than younger people. In others, they appear more
vulnerable. Despite the inconsistency in formal research studies, there are reasons to
believe that that the elderly are at increased risk for adverse emotional effects in the wake
of disaster. They may live alone and lack help and other resources. Depression and other
forms of distress among the elderly are readily overlooked, in part because they may not
take on exactly the same symptom pattern as among younger people. For instance,
disorientation, memory loss, and distractibility may be signs of depression in the elderly.
The elderly are also more vulnerable to being victimized. In the context of increased
stress on the family and community, meeting their special needs may take on a lowered
priority. One particular issue that may appear is feelings that they have lost their entire
life (loss of children, homes, memorabilia) and that, due to their age, there is not enough
time left in their life to rebuild and recreate. The elderly are also more likely to be
physically disabled (see below).
Although people who are physically disabled, mentally ill, or mentally retarded
have distinct needs from one another, all three groups are at especially high risk in
disasters. For those in each group, the normal patterns of care or assistance that they
receive and their own normal adaptations to produce acceptable levels of functioning are
disrupted by disasters. For instance, supplies of medication, assistive devices such as
wheelchairs, familiar caretakers, and previously effective programs of treatment may
become unavailable. This has both direct effects and increases anxiety and stress. Stress,
in turn, may exacerbate pre-existing mental illness. There may also be special needs with
regard to housing or food.
Those who were mentally ill or developmentally delayed may also have fewer or
less adaptable coping resources available and less ability to mobilize help for themselves.
The ongoing problems of the disabled may seem to the other victims of the disaster to be
of only minor importance in comparison to their own acute and unaccustomed suffering.
Their disabilities may even seem like an obstacle to dealing with the disaster itself. The
disabled are especially vulnerable to marginalization, isolation, and to “secondary
victimization.” They are at greater risk of post-disaster malnutrition, infectious disease
(e.g., in a shelter situation), and of the effects of lack of adequate health care.
Most of the discussion in this manual focuses on victims of “disasters” in the
usual sense. The experience of refugees from war and political violence (and even from
famine and other economic hardship) bears many similarities to the experience of the
victims of natural disasters, however. Those who have been tortured or the victims of
systematic violent political terrorization are especially vulnerable to adverse
psychological effects (as well as lasting physical effects) from their experience.
Many of the comments in this manual apply directly to refugees. In addition, even
when “former” refugees have been “resettled” in host countries far from home, although
they may no longer be physically separated out from others as identifiable “refugees,”
they may continue to bear the emotional consequences of their history. When new
disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.) hit, their previous experiences may complicate
their responses.
At any given time in the last decade, some fifteen million people were refugees.
Another twenty million were “internally displaced persons,” refugees who have left their
homes but have not crossed international boundaries.
Refugees have, typically, experienced personal terror or witnessed the physical
abuse or death of loved ones. They have suffered the destruction of their homes and
communities, the loss of their traditional livelihoods and of material possessions. They
may have been forcibly detained or spent periods in concentration camps and may, prior
to arrival in the refugee camp, have been tortured, raped, or otherwise physically abused.
Their personal status, belief in themselves, trust in others, and hopes for the future have
been shattered. They feel vulnerable and mistrustful. They have become dependent on
others for the physical necessities of life. In refugee camps, they may experience poor
housing, disruption of personal networks, lack of medical care, interruption of their
children’s schooling, uncertainty regarding their rights and legal status and future. The
refugee camp itself is likely to be a source of ongoing stress, with overcrowding, lack of
privacy, poor sanitation, long periods of inactivity, noise, disrupted sleep, and dangers of
assault or rape.
Many of these experiences are especially problematic for women. Since the y are
often the ones responsible for preserving their home and their family, disruption of home
and family may be especially distressing. As “little” a thing as not being able to cook for
their family may be a source of stress. They may also suffer from changes in family
relationships. If their husband is dead, missing, injured, traumatized, or separated from
the family, the woman becomes the “head” of the family and must take on unfamiliar and
traditionally male roles. This may confuse the children or lead to intrafamily conflict.
Alternately, an immature son may be forced to take on age-inappropriate roles. There
may not be any socially accepted role for a female single parent or widow. The woman
may find herself victimized by relatives. Lack of education or marketable skills may
make reintegration into a new social environment especially difficult.
Another danger for women, while fleeing and in refugee camps and shelters, is
rape. Rape may be a source of shame, guilt, denial of the woman’s own needs. She may
“escape” into illness or become socially isolated. In war settings, rape may take the form
or mass or repeated rape. This may be a form or torture, aimed at extracting information
from the woman or from her family, or it may be part of a systematic program of
terrorization of a civilian population.
Children, especially those who have been separated from their families are also
especially vulnerable. One unique group is children who have served as soldiers. In
addition to being traumatized and brutalized by their experiences at a developmentally
sensitive time in their lives, they are a stigmatized group, isolated from their former
For men and for women, being a “refugee” may prolong the trauma and prevents
self-healing. The usual model of response to disaster assumes that once the disaster is
“over,” the victim is in a safe, peaceful, “post-traumatic” environment. For refugees, this
is not true. They remain in a highly stressful, even repeatedly traumatic situation, and
may have little prospect of escaping it.
Just as with other forms of trauma, responses may vary from person to person. A
central theme that may emerge is mistrust. The experience of many refugees has been
that their trust has been repeatedly and violently violated. They have been exposed to
death, danger, and fear, often at the hands of neighbors or government officials. Initially,
the refugee camp may seem like a haven, but after several weeks, with no permanent
refuge in sight, the refugee’s hopes seem once again to have been betrayed. In this
context, feelings of anger, betrayal, skepticism, and hostility are both common and
normal. Refugees may express or enact distrust of camp officials, aid givers, mental
health workers, and relatives back home. Scapegoating, ostracizing others in the refugee
camp, victimization of individuals or ethnic minorities may also occur. Apparently
“irrational” fears for personal safety may dominate behavior. For instance, a visit to a
medical facility may trigger memories of torture experiences.
Other common responses seen among refugees are prolonged mourning,
homesickness, prominent fears, dissociative disorders, and prominent somatic reactions,
even several years after initial flight. In refugee camps, suicide attempts are relatively
common (especially among rape victims). Domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse
of women and children, apathy, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and learning difficulties
may be endemic.
Being a refugee continuously distorts people’s reactions. What was useful or
adaptive before they became refugees (skills, beliefs, knowledge, relationships) is no
longer so. This poses many problems for assessing the needs and responses of refugees.
Is a child’s violence, for instance, a response to traumatization? A means of assessing
others in the context of the refugee camp? A pre-existing personality pattern?
Disaster workers, including both those involved in rescue efforts immediately
following the disaster and those involved in longer term relief work, are at very high risk
of adverse emotional effects. Many of the same factors affecting direct rescue and relief
workers affect human rights workers, officials of humanitarian organizations, reporters,
and others who investigate disasters and their aftermaths.
They may themselves be primary victims of the disaster, with the same burdens as
other primary victims.
They are repeatedly exposed to grisly experiences (e.g., recovering bodies), the
powerful emotions and harrowing tales of victims.
Their tasks may be physically difficult, exhausting, or dangerous.
The demands of their tasks may lead to lack of sleep and chronic fatigue.
They face a variety of role stresses, including a perceived inability to ever do
“enough.” Even if the limits of what they can do are imposed by reality or by
organizational or bureaucratic constraints beyond their control (e.g., lack of supplies,
lack of manpower), they may blame themselves.
They may feel guilt over access to food, shelter, and other resources that the primary
victims do not have.
They may identify with the victims.
They may feel guilt over the need to “triage” their own efforts and those of others or
may blame themselves when rescue efforts have failed.
They are exposed to the anger and apparent lack of gratitude of some victims.
In addition to post traumatic responses much like those of the primary victims of
the disaster, rescue and relief workers may evidence anger, rage, despair, feelings of
powerlessness, guilt, terror, or longing for a safe haven. These feelings may be
distressing and may make the worker feel that there is something wrong with them. Their
sense of humor may wear thin, or they may use “black humor” as a way of coping.
Toleration for others’ failings is reduced and the anger of other relief workers or victims
may feel like a personal attack. Belief in God or other religious beliefs may be threatened
by a feeling of “How could God let this happen?” After a prolonged period of time on the
job, evidence of “burn-out” may appear.
Professional rescue workers, such as policemen and firemen, have some unique
sources of vulnerability. Their professional identity may depend on a self-image of
themselves as strong and resilient. Allowing themselves to “feel” their emotions about
the situations to which they are exposed may challenge their self respect or make them
feel like they are letting down co-workers or make them feel they are risking the ridicule
of other workers. In addition, professional rescue workers may have been exposed to
many previous traumatic situations. The new experiences may activate unresolved
feelings from past traumatic events.
Symptoms of “Burnout” Among Relief Workers
Excessive tiredness
“Loss of spirit”
Inability to concentrate
Somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances)
Sleep difficulties
Grandiose beliefs about own importance (E.g., engaging in heroic but reckless
behaviors, ostensibly in the interests of helping others; neglecting own safety and
physical needs (e.g., showing a “macho” style of not needing sleep, not needing
Mistrust of co-workers or supervisors
Excessive alcohol use, caffeine consumption, and smoking
Those providing mental health services to disaster victims and to relief workers
and those investigating disasters (e.g., journalists, human rights workers, officials of
humanitarian organizations doing “needs assessments”) also face special stresses. Their
central role is as witness to the sufferings of others. They may identify with their clients
and share their emotions. “Vicarious traumatization” is not uncommon. In contexts of
continuing conflict (e.g., civil conflict, political repression, war refugee camps), health
care workers of all sorts are themselves increasingly targets of violence. Contact with
survivors and providing advice and support to the local population may be seen as a
threat to the state, to one or the other side in the conflict, or to powerful forces in the
refugee camp. They may face harassment, arrest, detention, or assault. In some situations,
they can not evoke the law for their own protection, because the police or the army are
“part of the problem.” The result may be a heightened sense of powerlessness, anger, fear
and anxiety, and a pre-occupation with clients’ safety and one’s own safety. There may
be feelings of betrayal and loss, of vulnerability, of loss in a belief in an orderly or just
Disaster workers of all kinds face additional stress when they complete their tasks
and return home, to their “regular” life. Their experience has diverged in a variety of
ways from the experiences of their families and in the absence of preparation of both
workers and their families, a variety of marital and parent-child conflicts and stresses
may appear.
Distressing or problematic emotional responses are extremely common among
relief workers. For example, in one air crash, more than eighty per cent of the rescue
workers who had to deal with the bodies of victims showed some post traumatic
symptoms, more than half moderately severe symptoms. Almost two years after the
crash, a fifth of the rescue workers were still symptomatic.
Rescue and relief workers are rarely prepared ahead of time either for their own
reactions or to deal with the reactions of primary victims. Providing psychosocial
assistance to these workers and providing them with adequate shelter, food, and rest, even
when these are not available to the victims themselves, is a very high priority in disasters.
It may seem unfair, but if the rescue and relief workers are unable to function efficiently,
they can not help any one else.
In the wake of large scale disasters (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, refugee crises),
identifying which individuals are most at risk of becoming or remaining symptomatic is a
high priority. Inquiries may also be undertaken to determine exactly what happened (e.g.,
to help prevent repetition of the disaster or to identify deficiencies in the relief efforts or,
in some situations, to reveal human rights violations).
Individuals affected by a disaster exhibit a wide range of reactions. Some may
require support or other services immediately and urgently, others only after a delay, and
still others not at all. Some victims may experience initial relief at being safe; some
refugees may go through a several-week-long or several-month-long “honeymoon.” If
people are assessed too early and found not to be in need of services, it is easy to miss
these later reactions. Follow-up several days, weeks, or months later may identify people
in need who were initially passed by.
For the most part, victims and relief workers are unlikely to seek out assistance on
their own. Do not assume that, because a person has not sought out assistance, they do
not need assistance. Several approaches to identifying those in need of services may be
By category: Certain groups are especially vulnerable. These include relief
workers, victims who have had a family member die in the disaster, victims who
were trapped or entombed in the course of the disaster, victims who were severely
injured in the disaster (including those still in hospitals) or who continue to
experience pain or physical disability, children aged five to ten, mothers of young
children, and victims with a prior history of poor adaptation at work or at school
or of poor coping in previous periods of high stress.
By specific behavior patterns : Those who engage in maladaptive behaviors, such
as children who stay out of school after the disaster or adults who absent
themselves from work or who fail to “bounce back” may be signaling difficulty.
Similarly, after the first few days following the disaster, those presenting with
vague “medical” problems such as sleep disturbances, excessive fatigue, diffuse
pain, unexplainable headaches or gastrointestinal symptoms may be evidencing
psychological distress. Those expressing suicidal thoughts or making suicide
attempts or other attempts at self-harm are a high priority. Victims who describe
persistent re-experiencing of the trauma, especially if they report that they feel as
if they are re-living it, or who persistently avoid sights, sounds, or locations
associated with the disaster, or who show marked restlessness, irritability, or
hypervigilance, or who present the appearance of “being in a fog,” more than a
day or two after the disaster, are also at risk for ongoing difficulties.
By use of screening instruments: Symptom checklists can be distributed in
schools, churches, workplaces, or shelters or refugee camps. The Symptom
Report Questionnaire (SRQ) has been used in many countries and has proven
successful in identifying adults and older adolescents in distress. The SRQ, two
forms of a Pediatric Symptom Checklist designed for use with children, and a
questionnaire aimed at detecting signs of “burnout” among relief workers can be
found in Appendix A.
By case finding: Outreach efforts, including distribution of leaflets,
announcements on radio and television, articles in newspapers, public lectures,
posters in the offices or headquarters of the relief effort may stimulate selfreferrals. Teachers, religious leaders, medical workers, workplace supervisors,
and other local residents who may have contact with substantial numbers of
victims should be enlisted to help identify those in distress.
Some Diagnostic Issues
Recall that there are many reactions to trauma, including anxiety, depression,
somatic reactions, and culturally specific responses. Do not over-focus on whether
people meet specific diagnostic categories such as Post Traumatic Stress
Distinguish intense but understandable responses to concrete situations from
pathological responses. Intense grief should be distinguished from depression.
Aches and pains resulting from injury should be distinguished from somatic
symptoms expressing anxiety and depression. “Paranoia” due to loss of familiar
cultural cues, miscommunications, ambiguities in personal interactions, real or
fancied discrimination (among those from groups that have historically been
discriminated against), or as a consequence of torture should be distinguished
from psychosis. Even psychotic symptoms (hallucinations and delusions) may be
a brief reactive response to trauma, which will resolve fairly quickly with support,
or it may be part of a longer term pattern. Obtaining a history from the victim or
their family -- when the symptoms first appeared, when the worsen and when the
lessen, etc. -- is the best guide.
Be aware that some people may minimize their suffering, recent or past, due to
fear that their story will not be believed or fear that letting their suffering be
known will stigmatize them or will lead to other adverse consequences. The
stigmatization of victims of rape represents a common situation in which a
victim’s experience may be presented in disguised form (e.g., concern with
physical symptoms) or not reported.
Note that there are many different ways of coping with trauma. Some of these
ways may be adaptive. E.g.,
Fatalism; belief in fate or “karma;” belief it was “God’s will” or “It was meant
to be”
Beliefs that catastrophe and suffering are a normal part of life and should be
examined for their meaning (e.g., “bad precedes good” or “It is God’s way of
testing me.”)
Use of family, community, church support
Focusing on new dreams or priorities or a sense of mission
Hard work (learning new skills, acquiring a new language; helping others;
working hard) as a source of renewed self worth. Distinguish this from an
flight into intense, unsustainable, and sometimes pointless activity.
Exerting self-control
Other coping mechanisms are less adaptive and may indicate a need for
intervention. For instance,
Expressing stress in somatic form
Denial and silence
Projection; blaming; scapegoating
Helplessness and dependency
Dissociation, numbness
Distinguish an absence of marked distress that is the result of good coping from
that which reflects numbing, avoidance, denial, or other less adaptive forms of
coping. Absence of emotional responsivity may be one indicator of the latter.
Psychological responses to trauma may be confused with physiological responses:
Head injuries can cause brain damage. The victim of a brain injury may
experience headaches, dizziness, memory loss, difficulty attending or
concentrating, sudden outbreaks of crying or anger or laughing, difficulties
with vision or hearing or movement, and may express worry that their mind is
“broken.” Any of these may occur in the absence of brain injury, as well, but
treatment needs of those with physical damage to their brain are quite
different from those or people without such injury. Ask the victim and their
family whether they experienced an injury to the head in the disaster (usually
involving at least temporary loss of consciousness). Memory loss is a good,
although not perfect, indicator, as well. Ask the victim whether people say
they are forgetful, whether they have been having experiences such as leaving
the stove on or forgetting things. Memory can be briefly tested by asking the
victim to recall three words (e.g., “orange, necktie, 1983) immediately after
hearing them and after a delay of three or four minutes. Most people have no
trouble with this task.
Other disaster related injuries may also cause apparent mental disturbances.
These include metabolic disturbances due to burns, exposure to toxins,
crushing injuries, infection, or nutritional deficiency. The victim’s history
before and in the disaster (obtained from the victim or from family) is the
best guide.
Pain may mask the reporting of psychological symptoms.
Substance abuse may also mask or exacerbate emotional responses to trauma.
Assessment can harm those being assessed
A victim of a disaster may perceive assessment as a further violation of their
already tenuous sense of control over the traumatic experience. In the period immediately
after the disaster, the environment may be chaotic and there may be immediate stressors
and challenges to deal with. Subjects may seem fragile as they strive for control over the
environment. Assessment may seem like a continuation of the traumatic experience or
revive feelings. Even after a delay of days or weeks, evoking traumatic memories may
lead to feelings of shame or embarrassment or may trigger emotional turmoil or may
activate images of previous times in the victim’s life when he or she has been victimized.
It may activate defenses, including denial and avoidance. It may be resisted by victims or
may lead to avoidant or hostile responses directed at the counselor or other inquirer.
Pushing a victim to reveal what happened to them too fast or too insistently may
exacerbate the victim’s symptoms or even retraumatize the victim. Let the client
control the pace of the assessment. Ask gentle questions and listen. Let what the
client needs to tell you take precedence over predetermined notions of what
information must be gathered.
Assure the victim that the assessment process is confidential and that the
interviewer will not reveal anything about the interview without the victim’s
consent. To ensure confidentiality, interviews should be conducted in a safe,
quiet, private place. If translators are used, the same assurance of confidentiality
must be extended by the translator.
Clarify to victims the reasons for the assessment or other inquiry and give the
person assessed as much control as possible over the process. It may be helpful to
start by explicitly noting that the assessment may be distressing. Invite the person
being assessed to communicate if they are feeling distressed. Let them know that
they can stop the process at any time. Offer opportunities for respite during
assessment. Warn that in the hours or days following the assessment, there may
be an exacerbation of symptoms and that this is normal, part of how people
resolve trauma.
Cross Cultural Issues
Usually, those providing disaster counseling in the wake of disasters are the
victims’ fellow countrymen and the counselors are familiar with the language and
culture of the victims. At times, however, counselors from other countries are involved.
(This may be the case in the wake of large-scale disasters in poorer countries).
I have already noted that symptoms may present in “culturally specific” ways
(Chapter I). In the context of assessment, this implies that counselors must learn local
symptom patterns and local idioms for expressing distressing or other negative feelings.
They must also beware of (a) historical animosities between the national or cultural
groups represented by client; and (b) potential misunderstandings of the roles to be
expected of a helper (the counselor) and the one being helped (the victim); and (c)
potential misunderstandings of the relationship between individual and family. (With
respect to assessment, in many “Western” cultures the family is important primarily as a
source of ancillary information about the individual. In many other societies, however, a
problem experienced by an individual is shared by all in his or her family. The unit of
assessment may be the family rather than the individual).
A few more specific examples of cultural variants:
In some cultures, focusing on negative experiences may be seen as detrimental to
your future well-being (in this life or in a future one).
A traumatic event may be understood as due to one’s own actions. The “victim”
should endure it, not seek help.
A traumatic event may be understood as a result of fate, and it may be seen as
inappropriate to challenge or modify events that have happened to you.
Revelation of victimization (especially rape) may be stigmatizing and may have
serious consequences.
In some cultures, children are protected from knowledge of death. To “see” death
can lead to the spirit of the dead entering the child, and talk of death with a child
is taboo.
Cultural symbols vary in their meaning. (E.g., the owl, a symbol of wisdom in
some cultures, is a symbol of evil in others).
The meaning of dreams differs dramatically across cultures. What is a
“reexperiencing of a traumatic event” in the eyes of Western psychiatry may be a
bridge to the spirit world or a portent of the future in the eyes of other cultures.
The meaning of an event may not be the same to a counselor and a victim from
another culture. For instance, to a rape victim, not only the rape itself but a
resulting belief that she is infertile or unmarriageable may be of central
significance. Or the stigmatization resulting from rape may lead to a need to keep
it secret, resulting in loss of social support and alienation from the community. In
each case, an ongoing stressor (the beliefs, the alienation) may be as tormenting
as the original event.
There is no simple formula to cover all the possibilities. The counselor must learn -- from
books, from informants, and, most of all, from his or her clients.
One particular issue that may arise when counselors from a foreign country are
involved in disaster relief is the need to use translators or to recruit local people (who
may or may not have relevant prior training or experience) to function as co-counselors.
Such use of co-counselors or translators may affect the assessment process. At best, it
facilitates communication. In other cases, some victims may mistrust an outsider
(especially if the outsider is from a nation that formerly colonized the nation where the
disaster has occurred), and the use of a co-counselor or a local translator may ease the
relationship. But in still other cases, victims, fearing shame or retribution, may be less
likely to share their experiences with someone from their own community than with an
Even when these issues do not arise, use of translators may create some other
problems. The translator may lack the ability to translate accurately. Even if there is no
question of linguistic ability, other factors may interfere with the accuracy of translations,
however. These include: (a) The translator’s own experience of the disaster or his or her
own reactions to it may interfere with his or her ability to translate accurately. (b) The
relation of the translator to the victim and to the victim’s community may introduce
distortions into translations. (c) The translator may experience shame at what has
happened to the victim and may inaccurately report their experience. (d) The translator’s
versions of the victim’s story may be distorted by the translator’s and victim’s roles in
ethnic or political conflicts in the disaster community.
In any case, use of children as interpreters for their families is especially
problematic and should be avoided if at all possible. It may violates traditional family
roles. It may make children privy to information normally considered inappropriate for
them. It may violates cultural expectations about the role of children with respect to
There is no simple solution to these problems. When local counselors are not
available, use of a bilingual counselor from outside the immediate community may be the
best alternative.
Risks to those doing assessment
Those assessing disaster victims place themselves at risk of adverse emotional
reactions. This issue has been discussed above (Chapter II) in terms of burnout and
“secondary traumatization.” Some of these reactions (e.g., inability to concentrate,
excessive fatigue, avoidance of tasks) can lessen work efficiency. Other reactions more
directly interact with assessment tasks. For instance, experiences recounted by victims
may trigger recollections or reexperiences of traumatic events in their own history. This
can lead to unconscious tendencies to avoid asking about some issues or may produce
subtle messages to those being interviewed not to tell about certain experiences or
feelings. Alternately, the interviewer may distance himself or herself from those he or she
are interviewing, interfering with the emotional connection that facilitates the assessment
process. Interventions and self-help to respond to these issues is discussed below, in
Chapter IV.
There are two major aspects to intervention with the direct victims of disasters:
rebuilding the community affected by the disaster and intervening with individual
victims. (In addition, interventions must be aimed at rescue and relief workers and others
less directly affected by the disaster).
Sometimes these two aspects have been seen as being in opposition to each other.
For instance, in the context of huge disasters (e.g., a major earthquake, refugee camps for
victims of ethnic cleansing), some humanitarian aid workers have argued that to focus on
the mental health of individuals is a hopelessly large task. In any case, to focus on
individual recovery from the disaster deflects attention and resources from the more
urgent task of promoting broader social and economic recovery. From this perspective,
rebuilding informal networks of social support, reuniting families and communities, and
supporting the physical rebuilding of the shattered community take precedence over
interventions aimed at individuals or families.
The individual and community approaches are not really in opposition to one
another. The healing and rebuilding of the community is an essential underpinning for the
healing of individuals and families, and the healing of individuals and families is
necessary for the successful reconstruction of the community. In each case, the
underlying principle is to encourage healing processes, in individuals, families, and
communities. In this manual, the focus is on individual and small group interventions.
A wide variety of specific techniques have been used to provide immediate relief
to individuals in distress, to prevent or mitigate the longer-term emotional effects of
disasters. Later in this manual (Chapter VI), a number of these specific techniques will be
discussed in detail. To be useful, the techniques have to be adapted to the specific
situation – the kind of disaster, the human and material resources available, the specifics
of local culture and tradition. This section of the manual focuses on the core principles
that guide both specific techniques and their adaptations.
It is difficult for people to maintain a stable mental state, after a disaster or in any
other circumstances, unless certain basic needs are met. First, they must be assured access
to food, water, clothing, and shelter. Second, their need for physical safety and security
must be met. In the case of disasters, this includes not only freedom from fear for one’s
life, due to the disaster itself, but security from banditry, from the fear of looters, from
fear of rape or other assault in shelters or refugee camps, and from the fear that the
disaster will lead to the permanent loss of one’s land or one’s home. Third, the safety and
integrity of their family must be ensured. Fourth, their long term need for stable jobs,
adequate housing, and a functioning community must be met. This “hierarchy of needs”
has several implications:
In the very early stages of disaster response, the mental health of the rescue and relief
workers is the highest priority. Their wellbeing is essential in enabling them to
continue their rescue and relief work, which, in turn, is the basis for ensuring that the
basic needs of the direct victims of the disaster are met. A secondary need is to ensure
that the mental well being of the victims suffices to enable their cooperation with
rescue and relief efforts. After the initial “rescue” stage is over, as relief work
continues, responding to other mental health needs of victims become important, but
continuing to respond to the mental health needs of relief workers remains
Rapid physical and social reconstruction (e.g., restoring or creating housing, creating
jobs, reuniting families, rebuilding communities) is essential to restoring emotional
equilibrium and maintaining mental health, at all stages of the response to disaster.
There is no sharp separation of physical and material needs on the one hand,
psychological needs on the other. At any stage of the response to disaster, failure to
maintain the momentum towards meeting physical and material needs is a direct
threat to mental health.
Failure to provide for basic needs can be a potent source of traumatization above and
beyond the traumatization created by the disaster itself. In particular, unnecessary
evacuation, poor conditions in a shelter or refugee camp (lack of food, water,
sanitation, shelter; threats to personal safety), failure to provide adequate housing,
uncertainty as to food and water supplies, and separation of family members from one
another are themselves potent causes of subsequent mental health problems.
A wide range of emotional responses to disaster are normal responses to
overwhelming stress. They are not, in themselves, signs of “mental illness.” They do not
signify that the person suffering from the symptoms is “weak” or is “going crazy.” They
are focuses of intervention for two reasons: (1) The symptoms themselves may be
distressing to the person experiencing them. (2) The symptoms may interfere with the
person doing things that are important for his or her immediate safety or well being or
taking part in the recovery of their community.
Many of the symptoms described earlier can be understood as adaptive
mechanisms, by which people seek to protect themselves against the overwhelming
physical and emotional impact of the disaster. Both individuals and communities have
natural healing processes. The central task of psychosocial intervention is to elicit,
facilitate, and support these healing processes and to remove the obstacles to their
operation, in order to prevent lasting dysfunction and distress. Interventions are aimed,
above all, at minimizing the number of people who will require later “treatment.” One
major implication is that it is essential to reassure people, to help provide short term relief
of symptoms which may be alarming to them, and to act to prevent symptoms from
becoming entrenched. Education as to the kinds of reactions people may experience may
help people understand and “normalize” their feelings.
Victims do not usually see themselves as mentally ill and they may fear or avoid
involvement with “mental health” workers and the “mental health” system. Many do not
spontaneously reach out for the assistance of mental health workers. Psychosocial
assistance in the wake of disaster is best presented in a form that does not require people
to see themselves as “ill” or “mentally ill.”
Use non-mental health terms to describe services and those providing them (e.g.,
“human service workers,” “community counselors,” “community services,” “disaster
services”). Present services as “extra help for difficulties anyone would have trouble
with” after being affected by a disaster.
Aggressive outreach and case finding is necessary. Use local residents, primary care
health workers, teachers, religious leaders, and community leaders as informants. Use
door-to-door canvassing, mailings, television and radio announcements, leaflets
distributed in schools and workplaces, and announcements in churches to alert people
to the availability of services and the indications for using them. Do not neglect
informal gathering places (e.g., beauty parlors, cafes, day care centers). In shelters,
actively look for signs of distress (sobbing, facial expressions, body language,
aggressiveness, substance abuse, etc.).
Leaflets describing common responses to disasters, signs of distress, and services
available may be directed at primary victims, parents and teachers of children
affected by the disaster, rescue and relief workers, and families of relief workers.
Several sample pamphlets can be found in Appendix C.
Use existing, non-mental health institutions such as schools, churches, community
centers, and medical facilities as bases for psychosocial services.
Train and use non-mental health personnel (e.g., teachers, health workers, social
service workers, religious workers) to provide psychosocial services.
It is essential to seek the cooperation and explicit support of community leaders,
religious leaders, teachers, village elders, and other leaders in the community.
Because of their leadership roles, it may be difficult for these people to acknowledge
that they, too, could benefit from psychosocial services. Educational sessions or
debriefing sessions (see Chapter V) may provide an avenue for providing information
about trauma and its consequences and enlisting support for the provision of trauma
services, while giving services at the same time.
For all those who participate in delivering services, discretion, tact, respect for the
confidentiality of those being helped, and ethical behavior are essential.
The types of response that are offered should match the phase of emotional
responses and the needs of disaster relief operations.
The “Rescue” Phase:
Immediately after the disaster, the highest priority for psychosocial services is
rescue and relief workers, whose continued effective functioning is essential. This may
involve crisis management, crisis intervention, conflict resolution, assisting with problem
solving, or “defusing” (See Chapter VI). Many very small concrete services may be
emotionally useful as well as practically helpful. Bring rescue workers coffee, lend a
hand in helping clean up, give a hug, express interest.
Immediately after the disaster, the most urgent needs of victims are for direct,
concrete relief (e.g., rescuing lives, ensuring physical safety, providing medical care,
providing victims with food, water, shelter, reuniting families). Psychosocial
interventions aimed at victims during this phase are primarily directed to serving these
ends. In doing so, they contribute to longer-term mental health.
Provide “psychological first aid”: i.e., assistance for those whose acute distress
and difficulties functioning interfere with the victim’s cooperation with rescue
and relief efforts and ability to help provide for their own safety. Look for signs of
intense anxiety or panic, continuous crying, depressive withdrawal,
disorientation, incoherence, difficulty complying with requests by relief workers
or with the rules of the shelter.
Provide short term interventions to reduce anxiety, assist the rescue and relief
process, and help prevent later maladaptive responses. These include comforting
and consoling victims (a word or a hug); helping people reunite with family
members or get information about loved ones; helping people reconnect with
neighbors, work-mates, and others who make up their personal “community;”
helping defuse conflicts with other victims or between victims and relief workers;
supporting victims in such “reality tasks” as identifying the dead or making
decisions about animals and other property. Let victims express feelings, but focus
on reducing psychological arousal and anxiety, restoring social support systems,
and helping victims regain a sense of control. Seek to elicit competence and
independence from the very beginning.
Begin broad preventive activities and activities that set the stage for later
interventions: Provide accurate information as to what is happening, using all
available mechanisms (e.g., mass media, meetings, leaflets). Reassure victims that
acute reactions are normal and should not be sources of fear or of feelings that
one has lost control.
Interventions that are cognitively complex (e.g., “debriefing;” see Chapter V) are
premature when people are still in a stunned state. However, helping to reduce
anxiety may help prevent later distress, and making contact with survivors even at
very early stages after the disaster may create positive feelings towards the
counselor that can make later interventions more acceptable and effective.
Bringing water, blankets, toys for children, food to victims (i.e., providing
“primary” services” helps counselors make initial contact and establish trust and
enables clients to talk about what they need.
One problem in the early stage of response may be a rapid influx of people
seeking to help, seeking to exploit the situation, or seeking to satisfy curiosity. At
the level of those organizing the response to the disaster, immediate efforts to
control the potentially adverse effects of this influx is part of creating a sense of
safety for victims.
People who are indirectly affected by the disaster (families or friends of victims,
onlookers, even those watching repeated reports of the disaster on television) may
also show signs of distress. Note that what is helpful to one person may not be
needed or appreciated by another. For example, one person may find that talking
about the event reduces distress, while another needs to be quiet and introspective.
If one of these people depends on the other for support (as is often the case, for
example, with spouses), they may feel the other’s lack of similar response to be a
form of abandonment. Reassure people that there is no “correct” response and that
the other person’s differing needs are not, in fact, abandonment, but the way that
person needs to deal with stress.
The “Inventory” Phase
Continuing to provide services to relief workers remains a high priority during
this period.
The first days or weeks following the disaster may be a “honeymoon” phase, in
which people’s feelings of relief and optimism about the future dominate. A spirit of
generosity and mutuality may appear, and individuals may be in a state of denial about
their losses and the problems of the future. During this stage many people will not be
receptive to psychosocial interventions or will feel they do not need them. Others,
however, may welcome the chance to talk through their reactions within a few days of the
disaster or to find someone who can help them plan how to overcome the obstacles they
are facing.
The bulk of psychosocial interventions directed at victims themselves occur in this
period. Discouragement and disillusionment with relief and reconstruction efforts may
set in. Anxiety, sadness, irritability, frustration, and discouragement now combine with
disaster-produced losses and post-traumatic stress effects to produce a relatively high
level of need. Focusing on identification of those at risk and on interventions to reduce
the longer-term impact is essential.
Provide broad outreach services aimed at providing education about responses to
disaster and information as to the availability of services and guidance as to when
to seek assistance. This may include use of newspapers, radio, and television;
arranging community meetings or sending speakers to churches or schools;
distributing leaflets through shelters, schools, workplaces (see Appendix C).
Seek to identify those most at risk or most in need of services (see Chapter III)
and focus services on these people. The principles of such interventions are
discussed later in this chapter; some specific techniques are described in Chapter
V and in Appendix A.
Provide concrete support in specific situations. This may include helping those
who have lost a family member identify the victim and make funeral
arrangements; advocating for improvements in the organization of shelters or for
provision of specific supplies or services; helping organize community rituals and
memorial ceremonies; helping prevent or combating scapegoating in a shelter or
in a community.
Provide school-based services for all children, in addition to individual or group
services to children identified as showing signs of distress. Provide services for
teachers (who must interact with and support the children). Teachers may be
trained to themselves provide ongoing services for children.
Advocating for rapid progress in rebuilding homes, recreating jobs, restoring
community services (e.g., schools, churches) and involving victims in themselves
advocating for these both helps ensure that the essential underpinnings of
psychological recovery are realized and helps restore a sense of mastery and
control in victims.
In most circumstances, the number of people trained in responding to the emotional
consequences of disaster will be insufficient to meet the demand. Training of auxiliary
disaster counselors will, of necessity, be a high priority during this period. Primary care
health workers, teachers, religious leaders, traditional healers, and others can be enlisted.
The “Reconstruction” Phase
Emotional consequences of the disaster may continue to appear for up to two
years or more post-disaster. In part this represents delayed reactions, in part responses to
a growing recognition of the irreversible consequences of the disaster. The experience of
several disasters suggests that mental health assistance should remain available for
about two years or more after the disaster. Such services also permit longer-term followup of those treated earlier. It may be helpful to establish and maintain a telephone “hot
line” or other ways for people to contact counselors if the need arises, for the period after
counselors leave the site of the disaster.
Tasks at Different Stages Following a Disaster
I. The Rescue Stage (immediate post-impact):
Provide “defusing” and crisis intervention services for relief workers
Ensure safety of victims and ensure that physical needs (housing, food,
clean water, etc.) are met
Seek to reunite families and communities
Provide information, comfort, practical assistance, emotional “first aid”
II. The Early Inventory Stage: First month
Continue tasks of Rescue Stage
Educate local professionals, volunteers, and community with respect to
effects of trauma
Train additional disaster counselors
Provide short-term practical help and support to victims
Identify those most at risk and begin crisis intervention, “debriefing,” and
similar efforts
Begin reestablishing community infrastructure: jobs, housing, community
institutions and processes
III. The Late Inventory Stage: Months two on
Continue tasks of Rescue and Early Inventory Stages
Provide community education
Develop outreach services to identify those in need
Provide “debriefing” and other services for disaster survivors in need
Develop school-based services and other community institution-based services
IV. The Reconstruction Phase
Continue to provide defusing and debriefing services for relief workers and
disaster survivors
Maintain a “hot line” or other means by which survivors can contact counselors
Follow up those survivors treated earlier
It is difficult, if not impossible, to provide effective psychosocial services without
the cooperation and support of those directing and providing medical and material relief
efforts, at the local as well as the regional or national level. Governmental officials (at
local or national level) often do not recognize or give much priority to the psychosocial
effects of disasters. Rescue and relief workers, who are necessarily focussing on the
urgent and concrete tasks of saving lives, protecting property, ensuring the provision of
food, clothing, and shelter, and rebuilding the material infrastructure of the community
may see psychosocial services as unnecessary or even as getting in their way. Educating
both of these groups about the impact of psychosocial processes on the relief effort itself
and on the long run consequences of not responding to the mental health effects is
Early development of liaison with those directing relief work is essential. Forming
a task force made up of experts in psychosocial intervention, formal community leaders
(e.g., the mayors of towns), representatives of influential groups in the community (e.g.,
churches, unions), leaders of the relief effort, and representatives of the victims to guide
and support psychosocial work may be very useful.
One potential source of contention is that preexisting social stratification (by
class, caste, gender, rural vs. urban, etc.) may lead to certain groups (e.g., women, poorer
people) being left out of the process. Conforming to traditional patterns of stratification in
the name of efficiency or of “restoring community structure” reinforces those patterns.
Implementing programs along more egalitarian and participatory lines may produce
conflict and new forms of stress, but it may also ultimately result in serving a far larger
group of victims and producing a more integrated, cooperative post-disaster community.
Several useful focuses of early liaison work are:
Providing for education and training of rescue and relief workers (before they begin
work, if at all possible) as to the emotional effects relief work may have on them and
on the availability and usefulness of supportive services for them. Advocate with
those directing the relief efforts that this should be part of the relief worker
orientation program.
Providing for training of rescue and relief workers (before they begin work, if
possible) with respect to the nature of the emotional responses of trauma victims that
they can expect.
Informing relief workers and officials of the importance of providing adequate,
accurate, and non-contradictory information to survivors.
Educating relief officials about the importance of keeping services unfragmented.
Educating or informing relief officials about several findings which should influence
rescue and relief operations:
a) the importance of keeping primary groups (families, work crews, groups of
people from the same neighborhood or the same village) together, if conceivably
b) the importance of not separating children from their parents, if in any way
c) the importance of having victims play a role in the relief and recovery efforts
d) the importance of avoiding unnecessary evacuations and of letting people return
to their homes as rapidly as possible
e) the importance of allowing the bereaved to see the bodies of those who have
died, if they desire to do so.
f) The importance of pet rescue and maintenance of pets in special animal shelters.
This is often neglected but is very important for the emotional well-being of many
One effective way of encouraging integration of social assistance with overall
relief programs is for those providing psychosocial assistance to thoroughly integrate
themselves into the relief team. Go out with food distribution teams. Run a “play” center
for children, which will also draw in mothers. Be part of the “briefing” or “orientation”
team for newly arriving relief workers. Attend early morning or late night team meetings.
People from different cultural groups (including different sub-cultural groups
within a larger society) may express distress in different ways and may make different
assumptions about the sources of distress and how to respond to it. Techniques originally
devised in industrialized countries must be applied sensitively, if they are to be used
elsewhere. (Fortunately, there is a body of evidence suggesting that these techniques can
be successfully adapted to a wide variety of situations.
Some of the cross-cultural differences which may need to be taken into account
include the following:
Some societies explain behavior in “rational” or “scientific terms, others in
more spiritual terms. Where on this continuum is the particular culture?
What is the extent and nature of verbal interactions expected between a person
who is in distress and a person trying to help them?
Under what conditions is it socially appropriate to express emotions such as
shame, guilt, fear, and anger? How are various emotions described and
Is revealing feelings to others socially appropriate? What issues are raised by
discussing feelings or practical problems in the presence of other family
What are the social expectations with respect to the roles of victim and
counselor? E.g., what is the appropriate social distance between them? What
deference is owed the helper?
What are the cultural beliefs regarding the role of ritual in the treatment? Are
there expectations with regard to the sequences of interactions between a
person seeking help and the helper? Are specific rituals expected in treatment?
What are the cultural expectations with regard to the use of metaphor,
imagery, myth, and story telling in a helping relationship?
Is there an expectation that a helper will provide immediate concrete or
material assistance or direct advice or instructions?
What are the traditional ways of understanding the sources of disasters (e.g.,
witchcraft, the will of God, fate, karma)? What does this imply about
expectations and needs with regard to a sense of personal control?
What is the culturally expected way of responding to terrible events? (E.g., it
may be resignation; individual action, collective action. “depression” may or
may not be seen as a problematic way of understanding events.
What are people’s expectations regarding the use of traditional healers or
rituals and regarding the role of “western medicine”?
How are the symptoms of “mental illness” explained?
What are people’s expectations with regard to authority figures and especially
to those seen as representing the government?
What is the role of subsistence activities which the disaster has disrupted in
establishing cultural identity?
Interventions need to be sensitive to these differences and may effectively draw
on them, as well. To cite several examples, in working with victims of a volcanic
eruption in the Philippines, counselors incorporated prayer into “debriefing” sessions; in
working with traumatized Navaho Indian war veterans (U.S.A.), traditional healers were
enlisted both to help provide services and to organize traditional rituals aimed at
cleansing warriors returning from battle.
One path which helps create such sensitivity is to involve local people in every
phase of psychosocial services. Local health workers, priests, traditional healers, union
leaders, teachers, and local community leaders should be educated about the psychosocial
consequences of disaster and enlisted to serve as psychosocial counselors. Modifications
of the techniques described in Chapter III can be developed with their aid and
In this context, differences between men and women in coping styles and in what
is deemed socially appropriate can also be regarded as a form of “cultural difference.”
Interventions need to be sensitive to the possibly differing expectations and needs of
women (e.g., with respect to speaking about emotional concerns in a family meeting or a
public setting).
A variety of specific intervention techniques may be useful in responding to the
emotional impact of disaster on individuals, families, and other groups. In any particular
disaster situation, these techniques may have to be modified or adapted, and there are
many other, less formal interventions that may be useful.
In what follows, the focus is on the logic and underlying purposes of interventions,
rather than the details or specific mechanics of interventions. The latter is addressed for a
number of specific techniques in Chapter III.
1. Talking: People need to make sense of a disaster, in the context of their lives and
their culture. Telling a story about what happened is a way of creating a meaning for
the events. Many victims find that simply telling others about their experiences in the
disaster or about their experiences in the days and weeks after the disaster is helpful.
Telling what happened to another person also permits the victim to check that his or
her perceptions of what happened are accurate. Telling one’s story “externalizes”
thoughts and feelings, subjecting them to examination by oneself and others. Emitting
feelings a little bit at a time when the experience is safely in the past, by talking to
others or by crying, reduces stress. Public opportunities for mourning, celebrating,
and otherwise expressing feelings can also relieve stress and may allow expression of
feelings in a socially acceptable way in situations in which one-on-one discussion
with a disaster counselor may be less acceptable. Note: While talking about
experiences is generally healthy, “rumination” (repetitive, obsessive retelling of a
story) is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression and should be
discouraged by engaging the victim in alternative activities or diversions. Helping
clients to focus on decisions and actions in the present can strengthen their
mechanisms for coping with their difficult emotions and behaviors.
For children, other means of communication, including playing, art work, dancing, or
role playing may play the same role that talking does in an adult. For some adults
talking about the events may be painful, or talking about bad events may be culturally
proscribed, and similar non-verbal means of communication may provide a way to
express themselves.
2. Communication of information: Uncertainty increases victims’ level of stress.
Incorrect information produces confusion, can interfere with appropriate responses,
and can lead to tensions among victims or between victims and relief workers.
Provide victims with accurate and full information, as quickly as possible, using both
individual, direct forms of communication and general public announcements (e.g.,
via the mass media). Combat rumor mongering. It is essential to have a single source
of information which victims can rely upon (e.g., a posted, regular, reliable schedule
for information sharing by relief officials).
3. Empowerment: One of the most psychologically devastating aspects of a disaster is
the victim’s sense of having lost control over his or her life and fate. Interventions
that help those affected by the disaster change from feeling themselves as “victims”
(i.e., as passive, dependent, lacking control over their own lives) to “survivors” (who
have a sense of control and confidence in their ability to cope) are central to
preventing or mitigating subsequent emotional difficulties. Discourage passivity and a
culture of dependency. Seek to engage victims in solving their own problems.
Victims should be encouraged to participate in making decisions that affect their lives
and to take part in implementing those decisions. They should not be denied an active
role in solving problems, in the interests of “efficiency.” For adults, a return to work
(either their usual work or other productive or personally meaningful activity) helps
increase their sense of control and of competence. For children, a return to school
performs the same function. Even when people must remain in a shelter for prolonged
periods, developing small scale income generating productive activities, permitting
victims to help run the shelter and the relief administration, and providing skills
training are useful parts of psychosocial rehabilitation.
4. Normalization: While unfamiliar emotional responses are normal following a
disaster, victims may find their own reactions distressing. The best antidote is
education. Reassure victims that their responses are not a sign that they are “going
crazy.” Explain the typical time course (i.e., that, in most cases, symptoms can be
expected to remit over a period of weeks or months). Warn victims that the
anniversary of the disaster, environmental stimuli that remind them of the disaster and
other events such as funerals or legal actions growing out of the disaster may lead to a
brief return of symptoms that had faded. Victims should also know that not everyone
experiences the same symptoms or even any symptoms at all. They are not
condemned to have symptoms.
5. Social Support: Recovery from disaster is inherently social. Restoring or creating
networks of social support is essential in dealing with the extreme stresses created by
disaster. Avoid breaking up existing communities. Combat isolation of individual
victims. Reuniting families has the highest priority. Reuniting people from the same
neighborhood, work teams, and other pre-existing groupings is helpful, and
separating members of such pre-existing groups (and especially members of the same
family) is harmful. Only in the most extreme situations should children be separated
from their parents (e.g., if the child’s parents are abusive or rejecting because they are
unable to cope with their own trauma or that of their child). If separation of a child
from its parents is necessary (or if the parents are injured or killed), keeping the child
with another trusted adult known to them (e.g., a relative, a teacher) is urgent.
Sending the children away “for their own protection” is almost never advisable.
Returning children to school and adults to accustomed social environments (e.g.,
work) is important.
In some instances, no natural support groups are available. In this situation, creating
artificial networks (e.g., creation of ongoing peer or self-help groups for treatment,
helping to reorganize and rebuild communities) is helpful. In most instances, group
treatment modalities should be a central part of the psychosocial response to disasters.
When possible, the group that is the unit for treatment should be a naturally occurring
group, such as the family.
Note: While social support generally helps people deal with stress, expectations that
one should support others, if excessive, and feeling too much empathy for too many
people can exacerbate stress. Resistance to involvement in social networks should be
evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
6. Relief of symptoms: Anxiety, depression, exaggerated stress responses, and other
symptoms are both distressing to the individual and may lead to difficulties in
adapting to what is intrinsically a stressful situation. While extensive intervention to
treat entrenched psychiatric difficulties is beyond the scope of this manual, more
time-limited interventions, such as brief crisis intervention or relaxation and
desensitization techniques (see Chapter VI) may be useful. Screening victims for
unusually intense responses, using instruments such as the SRQ (see Appendix A) if
necessary, helps identify individuals in need of more intensive services. Those with
pre-existing psychiatric conditions are also at risk. Such victims should be referred
for more extensive individual or group counseling, or medication, if resources are
available. For those with pre-existing psychiatric disabilities, efforts should be made
to restore their previous treatment (e.g., therapy, medication). For those without prior
histories of psychiatric disorder but who show acute distress, medication (e.g.,
anxiolytics for acute anxiety and panic, neuroleptics for psychotic symptoms), when
available, may be a useful short term response.
7. Build on community strengths, traditions, and resources (without being a slave to
tradition): Communities have strengths and resources. These strengths and resources
can be a powerful tool for mitigating the effects of disasters in individuals.
A sense of community, a sense of social identity, and a network of social support are
essential underpinnings of mental health. Interventions and advocacy to restore
community morale, traditional economic activities, pre-existing welfare and personal
services, schools, leisure and recreational patterns are useful.
Communities have a wealth of traditional strengths and resources. Use indigenous
healers and local residents, both drawing on their traditional skills and training them
in psychosocial rehabilitation techniques. Identify traditional rituals and ceremonies,
such as healing rituals and purification rituals used by the community to deal with
crisis, and facilitate their use. Where traditions don’t exist, new community rituals
may be created, such as a day of mourning or daily bell ringing or processions.
There are potential pitfalls in efforts to rebuild the pre-disaster community. Some of
these are created, directly or indirectly, by the disaster itself. For instance, conflicts
may arise between emergent leaders “created” by the crisis of disaster and traditional
leaders or between local leaders and outside experts and elites. Traditional elites may
use their traditional positions to monopolize post-disaster resources or to further predisaster ambitions. The crisis created by disaster may open long-dormant faults in
societies or communities and may lead to new relations within families or within a
community. A crisis is an opportunity for change to emerge in a community.
“Building on community strengths” does not mean automatically seeking to restore
the old structure of the community in the interests of “efficient” relief efforts, nor
does it mean pursuing one’s own beliefs in how communities or families “ought” to
be structured. It is engagement in a community, rather than a particular structure of
the community, that represents an area of hope for victims.
For the most part, the same principles that apply to adults apply to children, with
appropriate adaptations for their age (i.e., use language appropriate to the child’s age; be
concrete). The various child-specific reactions to disaster discussed earlier suggest
several additional principles for work with children:
Children are affected both directly by the disaster and indirectly, by observing and
being affected by their parents’ reactions . Unless there are strong reasons to the
contrary, such as an abusive parent-child relation or the physical or psychological
unavailability of the parents, involving children together with their parents should be
a major part of treatment. Encouraging parents to discuss what happened in the
disaster with their child, to recognize and accept and understand their child’s
reactions, and to communicate openly about their own reactions, is helpful.
A barrier to identifying children in need of services may be the parents’ ignoring or
denying signs of distress in their children or parents or attributing regressive
behaviors such as bed wetting or acting out behaviors as “willful.” Parents should be
educated about these issues, and case finding should be pursued through other routes
(e.g., schools) as well.
Parents may benefit from education with regard to appropriate responses to particular
behaviors and to the benefits of specific treatments, as well. For instance (a)
Regressive behaviors, such as bed wetting, should be accepted initially. The child
should be comforted without demands. He or she should not be shamed or criticized
or punished. Later, normal expectations can be gradually resumed. (b) Behavioral
interventions (systems of rewarding desired behaviors, with limit setting on
undesirable behaviors) are the most useful responses to inappropriate behaviors. (c)
Physical comforting may be useful in reducing anxiety levels among children. One
study has shown that regular back and neck massages may be helpful. (d) Children
need reassurance and permission to express their own feelings without fear of being
Children may have special concrete needs – toys, bedding, special foods, availability
of age-appropriate activities (play groups, school, chores). Parents also benefit when
these are provided, since they help the parents cope with the demands their children
place on them. On-going child care services, to enable parents to return to work or to
deal with the practicalities of a return to normal function, are also needed.
Separation of children from their parents should be avoided, if at all possible. When it
is absolutely necessary (for the child’s safety or because of the inability of the parents
to care for the child), efforts should be made to ensure that the child is accompanied
by other familiar and important figures in their life, such as a grandparent, older
sibling, or teacher.
Children are especially prone to drawing inaccurate conclusions about the cause of
the disaster, their own actions, and the normality of their current feelings. For
example, they may believe that they are somehow to blame for what happened.
Exploration and correction of these ideas is part of treatment.
Younger children (up to ten or eleven, at least) may not be able to use language
effectively to describe their feelings or to work through their reactions. Drawing, play
with puppets, role playing, or writing which is not specifically focused on the disaster
(e.g., poetry, stories) may be a useful way of enabling a fuller exploration of
responses. These approaches are discussed in more detail in Chapter VI.
Children should be given time to experience and express their feelings, but as soon as
possible, a return to the structure of household routines should be pursued.
Schools play a key role. They provide a safe haven for children during the day and
serve as locations for case finding and for intervention and. By providing a structured
environment for the child, they help the child regulate his or her reactions. A rapid
return of children to school and monitoring of attendance and of unusual symptoms is
helpful. (It is not unusual for children to want to be with their parents immediately
following a disaster, however. Child care services may be needed). When children
return to school after a disaster, they should not be immediately rushed back to
ordinary school routines. Instead, they should be given time to talk about the event
and express their feelings about it (without forcing those who do not wish to talk to
do so). In-school sessions with entire classes or groups of students may be helpful.
The school can also hold meetings with parents to discuss children’s responses and
provide education for parents in how to respond to children after a disaster.
Children, like adults, benefit from feeling a sense of control over frightening
situations. Involving children in age-appropriate and situation-appropriate tasks that
are relevant to relief efforts (e.g., collecting supplies for disaster victims or taking on
responsibilities such as caring for younger children in a shelter) is helpful both to the
child and to other victims of the disaster.
The repetitive graphic images of the disaster shown on television can generate
anxiety. Exposure to television accounts of the disaster should be limited. An adult
should be present to monitor and protect the child from overwhelming graphic images
and to talk about what the child is watching.
Additional suggestions on how parents can help their children in the wake of disaster can
be found in Appendix C (“Children and Disasters”).
The needs of women in the wake of disaster has to be understood in the context of
the roles, experience, and status of women in the pre-disaster society. At the same time, it
should be stressed that not all women have the same needs. Differences in nationality,
ethnicity, age, social class, marital status, as well as particular differences in personality
or history of past trauma affects their needs. Elderly or disabled women may carry a
double burden of vulnerability.
Women are often underrepresented in formal organizations concerned with
disaster preparedness, warning, and response. As a result, their needs may not be heard,
taken into account, or responded to by those making decisions about responses to
More positively, women's formal and informal organizations and networks can
be a source of strength, both to individual women and to the disaster response process as
a whole. Promote women's participation, empower women within the disaster response
process, open opportunities to non-traditional jobs and roles, and use women's existing
Women whose work is done at home may be relatively isolated. Extra or different
efforts may be needed to warn them of impending disaster.
In poorer countries, women are more likely than men to be illiterate or to not
speak the "official" language of the country. Again, different techniques must be
used to warn women of approaching disaster and to inform women of available
Providing Assistance:
Those responsible for designing direct aid programs should consciously analyze
the needs of women and direct aid specifically to these needs. For instance:
1. Target credit specifically at women-headed families.
2. Provide assistance and employment opportunities directly, without the
woman having to go through a male (e.g., a husband or father).
3. Programs of repairing or rebuilding homes should use designs suitable for
childcare and home based occupation needs. Women should be directly
involved in planning such redesigns.
4. Beware: If aid or credit is distributed to a household or in the name of the
husband, women may get less assistance than if aid is distributed to
In shelters, relief centers, and refugee camps:
1. Provide for child care and elder care to enable women to participate directly in
2. Provide for safety against sexual assault.
3. In designing medical services, be sure that obstetrical and gynecological
services, equipment, and medications are available.
4. In designing medical services, include reproductive health services.
5. Provide recourse for victims of domestic abuse and violence.
To identify women in need of services, go where women gather. This may
include childcare centers, playgrounds, schools, laundry facilities, rivers
where women go to wash clothes, churches, etc.
Special issues:
Rape: Special sensitivity is needed in addressing the needs of women who
have been raped. In almost every society, victims of rape and other gender-
based violence are stigmatized and, in some cases, they are severely punished.
The consequences of revealing a rape may be as traumatic as the event itself.
Rape also has direct consequences, possibly including physical injury,
acquisition of sexually transmitted disease (including HIV), pregnancy, or loss
of virginity (in settings in which this may have profound cultural meaning).
Women may have difficulty talking about such assaults. Shame, fear, and
anger may prevent women from revealing these events. The woman may deny
the occurrence of these events (with herself as victim or with another family
member, such as a daughter, as victim) to protect herself or others . She may
become socially isolated.
Rape victims should be approached by same-sex counselors. Make contact
with rape victims at a rate and in a manner that the client can accept. Avoid
any moral judgment of the victim: Rape is never the fault of the victim.
Ensure privacy for the interview and take extra measures to ensure
confidentiality. Note that denial and repression may be survival mechanisms,
not signs of emotional disturbance. Provide mechanisms to protect victims
against stigmatization and against direct reprisal. Seek to end the isolation of
the victim.
Education of victims and community and creating alliances with community
and religious leaders to combat the stigmatization of rape are essential. Rape,
it can be emphasized, is not primarily a sexual act. It is an act of anger or of
power or of exerting control or of terrorization enacted sexually.
Other sex-or gender-based harassment or assault: Women who have been the
victims of physical abuse within their families also present with special needs.
Loss of telephone service or impassability of roads in the wake of disaster
may render them vulnerable to renewed assault. Women who have previously
fled such abuse (e.g., to a battered women's shelter) may experience
evacuation in the wake of an disaster as a second evacuation. In a disaster
shelter, they may be re-exposed to violence from the very person from whom
they had previously fled.
Self-conscious efforts to locate women isolated in their homes and to protest
them from further abuse should be part of the disaster response plan.
The approaches to intervention used in a wide range of post-disaster situations
may require modifications for refugees, especially those in long-term refugee camps.
Issues of physical safety, (including safety for women from sexual harassment
and assault), provision of food and water and medical services remain primary.
Combating isolation, passivity, and idleness are essential, but ensuring at least a
minimal level of privacy and opportunities to escape from crowding and noise are
also essential.
Certain types of victim (e.g., unaccompanied children, single parent families, the
physically disabled) may be especially vulnerable to isolation or victimization.
Conflicts (individual or political/ethnic) from the refugees' place of origin may
spill over into refugee camps and may interfere with healing or create
What appear to be trivial refugee camp rules or procedures have the potential to
be retraumatizing. For example:
-- In cultural environments where ritual ablution before prayer is required,
limited access to washrooms first thing in the morning can be a source of
distress, even if, over the course of the day, there is adequate access for
maintaining normal hygiene.
-- The process of distribution of food in a shelter or refugee camp may
conflict with traditional notions of who serves whom.
-- Limitations on the ability to carry out proper mortuary ceremonies
(including providing food for the dead as well as for the living) may lead
to fears that improperly cared for deceased family members may reappear
as vengeful spirits.
-- The role played by humanitarian aid officials may threaten the authority
of old leaders or seem to threaten traditional control over children.
Sensitivity to issues such as these requires involvement of camp residents in
setting camp procedures.
Refugee camps are environments which are neither short term nor permanent.
This is the antithesis of a return to "normality," which is so necessary for healing.
Even within the camp, keeping families and communities together, encouraging
the rebuilding of family and village structures, encouraging "normal" activities
such as going to school, engaging in productive work (participating in food
preparation and distribution, providing camp security, engaging in small scale
production), engaging in sports and other recreational activities, participating in
religious ceremonies, etc. provide a sense of connection to the past and to
"normal" life. Preparing camp residents for post-camp life (e.g., developing
workshops focused on practical issues, such as job-finding skills, health care,
legal rights, compensation issues, self-employment issues, as well as mental
health issues per se.) and developing a plan for returning refugees to their homes
and/or integrating them into a new community can help provide a sense of a
When refugees are fleeing political violence or war, refugees from several of the
warring factions may find themselves in the same refugee center or shelter.
Attention may need to be paid to promoting peace and harmony among the
several groups that had been involved in the violence. While this may not be
feasible in all situations, it is important both in preventing retraumatization and
conflict within the camp and in creating the possibility of a "normal" future.
For refugees from war or political violence, testimony about their shared
experience plays a central role in healing. It permits victims to tie their own
experience to history and community experience. It helps thwart isolation and
self-blaming as the victim recognizes the commonalties of his or her own
experience and that of others. Describing one's own experience to others, orally or
in writing, may be helpful. In a larger arena, Truth and Reconciliation
Commissions and/or trials of the perpetrators of violence may play a central role.
Victims of torture: A full treatment of the needs of refugees who have been victims of
torture is beyond the scope of this manual. The World Health Organization manual,
Mental Health of Refugees, provides a wealth of useful ideas. (See “Further Resources”).
However, note the following:.
For torture victims, a pervasive theme may be a lack of safety and mistrust. A
central need is to ensure the safety of the torture victim, both practically and
psychologically. Reassurance, and education about the psychological effects of
torture may be useful.
Victims may need assistance in sorting out the medical, social, and other practical
problems resulting from torture.
A central need of the torture victim is to reassume control over his or her life.
Take this into account in any interventions. For instance, ask permission to
interview. Explain the purposes of the interview. Allow the victim to set the pace
of any interviews or treatment.
There may be many environmental "triggers" for anxiety and memory. A visit to
the doctor's office or the dentist's office, an object such as a pencil or soda bottle
used in torture can trigger memories. Relaxation exercises may help the victim
deal with situations that trigger anxiety.
Neuropsychological injuries from torture may interfere with cognitive processing
or influence emotional reactions.
Torture aims at silencing, isolating, terrorizing, suppressing memory.
Acknowledging the suffering of the victim, supporting his or her need for justice,
enabling his or her search for a "meaning" to the experience are helpful.
Opportunities to tell the story of what happened, in individual or group or public
situations may be helpful.
Rescue and relief workers are both at high risk for adverse emotional responses
and a high priority for intervention. Their needs are often ignored, since their training and
willingness to work makes it appear as if they have more emotional resources than the
direct victims of the disaster. Their needs may be seen as “less important” than those of
the primary disaster victims, and they themselves are often poorly prepared for their own
emotional reactions to their experiences doing disaster relief. (Much of what follows also
applies to human rights workers, journalists, and others with prolonged or repeated
exposures to disasters and their consequences).
Relief workers (including policemen, firefighters, and soldiers who may be
involved in disaster responses) often develop a culture of “defensive distancing.” They
may deal with stress by using “black humor,” superficial callousness, and a belief that
getting the job done right is more important than expressing their feelings. They do not
seek out assistance and may resist being drawn into interventions.
After a period of time on the job, the accumulated stress may lead to “burnout,” a
syndrome in which the rescue worker loses his or her enthusiasm for the work, becomes
less efficient, feels chronically fatigued, feels besieged with unfair demands, and feels
chronically irritable with and critical of fellow workers and clients.
A process in which potential rescue and relief workers are screened and only those
deemed suitable are chosen may help lessen the frequency of adverse reactions.
People with a sense of independence, a sense of work identity and personal strength,
and prior experience of loss-related work may do better. Those with recent, personal
losses that have not been worked through are at high risk of adverse reactions.
Training and experience help prevent adverse psychological effects. To as great an
extent as possible, rescue and relief workers should be prepared beforehand as to
what to expect, both practically and psychologically, in themselves and in victims.
Preparation should focus on the particular disaster to which they are responding, if
possible. The closer their expectations are to the realities they will face, the greater
their sense of predictability and control, the less their feelings of helplessness and
uncertainty will be. Education about general responses to stress and about signs of
stress and burnout in themselves and in co-workers should be part of this training.
Training of relief workers in simple stress management and other coping skills that
they can use to protect themselves emotionally is also helpful. This may include
training in distancing and relaxation techniques (e.g., using pleasant images to avoid
ruminating about the horrors of the disaster and the impossibility of doing all that has
to be done; breathing exercises), education in the need for adequate rest and food,
education about the value of periodic “debriefings” (see Chapter V), and education in
the value of simply talking informally about experiences with colleagues may be part
of this training.
A major source of stress on relief workers arises from organizational issues. The
following may be helpful in reducing stress:
a) Reducing bureaucracy and paperwork
b) Promoting a sense of camaraderie and mutual support among relief workers
c) Interventions to defuse conflicts among workers or between workers and their
d) Providing adequate information about tasks and the overall disaster
e) Providing adequate supplies for the work demanded
f) Developing work rules and schedules that permit relief workers to follow through
on task assignments
g) Maintaining communication between workers and their own families,
h) Providing adequate facilities for rest, sleep, washing, and eating
i) Providing adequate food, shelter, and rest time for relief workers
j) Environmental interventions to reduce noise, improve traffic flow, and provide
space to take a break
k) Providing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices the relief workers are
One of the most important ways to reduce stress for relief workers is to provide
adequate “break time” or “down time.” This should be provided away from the relief
site (e.g., in a separate tent on the edge of the relief operation site, or in a room in the
back of a shelter). Food, supplies, and napping facilities should be provided.
Committed supervisors who are not over-controlling but who are firm about team
priorities, who can accept distress in their supervisees, who provide positive
feedback, and who monitor relief workers workloads help prevent burnout.
Efforts should be made to ensure rapid detection of acute stress reactions among
workers and to respond immediately. Observation of workers, informal interaction
with workers even in the absence of signs of stress, and contact with supervisors may
be helpful. Allowing workers who do show acute signs of distress to ventilate briefly
may relieve stress. Time out to take a short walk, have a cup of coffee, or meditate
may also be useful. During work shifts, it is best not to remove relief workers from
the scene of their work. Communicating that strong feelings are understandable and
expectable, but that rapid return to the relief tasks is also expected is helpful.
Within a few hours of any unusual interpersonal incident (e.g., a conflict between
workers or between workers and victims) or any other unusual stressful incident (e.g.,
an accident injuring a worker), a more extensive “defusing” session should be carried
out. It is important for workers to have a place where they can express concerns and
reactions in a supportive atmosphere and to blocks destructive criticism. The
“defusing” technique is described in detail in Chapter V.
Periodic “debriefings” and especially debriefing sessions before a relief worker
returns home to his or her “regular” life are essential. Seek to create an understanding
with relief officials that relief workers are expected to take part in regular debriefings,
regardless of whether or not they individually show active signs of distress. Relief
workers, themselves, should be made aware that participation in debriefings is part of
their job. The “debriefing” technique is described in detail in Chapter V. (Note:
Debriefings should be part of an overall program of stress relief, including prior
training for relief and rescue workers and follow-up services. One-shot debriefings
may do as much harm as good).
• Providing information to relief workers and to their families about what to expect
when the relief worker returns home and ascertaining whether support services will
be available in the workers’ home communities is helpful. Helping workers develop a
“return home” support plan should be part of the final debriefing.
• Not only those who are playing a direct role in rescue or relief operations are at risk
of negative emotional effects. Disaster counselors, medical workers, administrators of
relief efforts, human rights workers, journalists, and community leaders involved in
reconstruction are also at risk, either because of their direct experience of the disaster
or because of “vicarious traumatization” as a result of working closely with so many
primary and secondary victims of the disaster. Training, peer or group supervision,
adequate break time and other supports, and debriefing sessions for these groups are
also indicated.
Crisis Intervention (Individual)
What It Is:
A set of techniques for helping individuals gain control over a
crisis situation
People It Is Aimed At: Individual relief workers, disaster victims
When to Use it: At any time after a disaster, when individuals present “in crisis”
A “crisis” occurs when a person is faced with a dangerous or other seriously
stressful situation for which their habitual problem-solving mechanisms are unsuccessful.
Anxiety, fear, guilt and shame, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, a sense of
disorganization, or anger may result. The disaster itself represents a crisis for most
victims, of course. In the days and weeks and months following a disaster, additional
crises may appear, for victims and for relief workers. Some unexpected incident or
simply the buildup of stress over time can constitute the “crisis.”
Crisis intervention is a set of techniques aimed at helping the person in crisis gain
control over the crisis situation. A little support and focused help at such a time, aimed at
helping the victim to gain control over the crisis situation, may prevent later difficulties.
Crisis intervention may be focused on an individual, several people together, or small
groups (including a family unit).
The crisis intervention process involves, first, identifying and clarifying the
elements of the crisis (the problem or issue or situation); second, developing problemsolving strategies; and third, mobilizing the person to act on these strategies.
Simply identifying the elements of the crisis may, in itself, may help the client
regain a sense of mastery. Ventilation of feeling and making the client aware that intense
feelings do not represent “going crazy” may be helpful, but the flow of affect should be
monitored so that the client doesn’t become frightened of losing control and so that his or
her thought does not become further disorganized. The subsequent task is to help the
client discover solutions, access support networks and resources and concrete services.
This may be a very informal process, accomplished in as little as a few minutes, or it may
be more formal and may require several meetings.
Some guidelines for crisis intervention:
Seek to open up discussion with simple, factual questions: “What happened?”
“What is concerning you? “Can you tell me about it?” Show active interest and
Follow up with specific questions. Gather specific information beyond what is
spontaneously offered. What is happening (or not happening) that is producing an
ongoing state of crisis at the moment?
Respect initial needs to minimize or deny what happened (e.g., that a loved one
may have died in the disaster) as self-protection, unless the person is out of touch
with reality or is expressing beliefs that are detrimental to their immediate well
being. Provide empathy, warmth, support, and reassurance. Gestures such as a pat
on the back or an offer of a cup of coffee may help. Recognize pain, fear,
suffering, worry. “It must have been terrifying.” “I can see how worried you must
be.” “I can see how you must have felt.” Gently and slowly help the client
understand the situation more realistically.
Gradually seek to elicit thoughts and feelings and reactions (“How did you feel
about it when it occurred? How do you feel about it now?”). Provide
encouragement. Reflect back the victim’s comments to open space for
elaboration. Acknowledge feelings but don’t probe deeply or seek to intensify
them – this is crisis intervention, not long term therapy. Ask questions. Are there
thoughts he or she can’t get out of their head? While expression of feelings or of
thoughts about the crisis-producing situation may be helpful, discourage repetitive
Be alert to what it is in the disaster or other crisis that distresses the victim. Do not
assume you know the answer to this. For example, a disaster has many potentially
distressing aspects. Which is it? Is it personal injury? Loss of property? Worry
about loved ones? Seeing others hurt? Shame at how the victim acted?
Focus on the immediate problems, needs, and priorities. Seek to formulate the
dimensions of the problem and their meaning for the victim.
Assess the victim’s coping skills and sources of support. What did they do at
various times during and after the disaster (or other crisis-producing situation)? Is
their understanding of these events accurate and realistic? Can they focus on the
next tasks and those of their family? How have they coped with stress or disaster
in the past? How do they deal with anger, pain, loss, failure? What helps? What
doesn’t help? How are they dealing with the situation now? What supports are
available to them? What resources are available?
Screen for signs of severe mental illness (e.g., delusions, unrealistic denial,
hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, violently aggressive thoughts).
Respond to immediate reality-based needs. Help the victim generate specific
alternatives, plans, actions, solutions, priorities, and determine what they need to
do next (including help or support they may need).
Encourage active management of needs on the client’s part. Discourage passivity,
dependency, and regression. For instance, in most instances it is better to have the
client make telephone calls to arrange for meeting their own needs than for the
disaster counselor to make the calls.
Reinforce adaptive coping. Encourage actions that facilitate feelings of mastery,
such as taking part in rescue and recovery activities. Encourage talking through
the experience and identifying and accepting as natural their own responses.
Connect the person to others responses, so that they recognize their shared
problems and responses. Reinforce supportive interactions with family and
Help the victim manage his or her feelings in acceptable doses that do not produce
further disorganization.
Give permission for or even prescribe adaptive rest, but do not provide
reinforcement of passivity or inactivity. Convey an expectation that the victim can
make decisions, control his or her own destiny, provide for his or her own needs,
with assistance.
Be sure to get information about the person’s identity and how to locate them, to
enable later follow up. In some cases, it may be appropriate to follow up within a
very short period (e.g. twenty minutes). In other cases, where a longer term issue
is at stake, follow up a few days later.
What It Is:
An informal procedure to help groups of relief workers deal with
their reactions to specific incidents
People It Is Aimed At: Relief workers
When to Use it: Within 24 hours after the incident
Defusing is a brief, informal procedure to help relief workers deal with the
feelings and reactions created by a specific incident or event. It may be a response to
some unexpected incident in the course of relief work (e.g., an accident or a gruesome
discovery of a disfigured body during rescue operations), or to a conflict (between two
relief workers, between a worker and a supervisor, or between a relief worker and a
victim). Defusing provides a chance for those affected by the incident to focus on
defining the problem and to develop problem-solving strategies that will preserve the
productivity of the work unit.
Defusing can be conducted with a group of individuals who were involved in a
single incident or situation or with an individual. When the precipitating situation
involves a conflict between two or more people (e.g., between relief workers and
victims), it is better to work with each party separately, at least initially. Defusing should
be done with relief workers and victims separately and with relief workers and their
supervisors separately.
In a defusing session, the affected individual or group meets with a disaster
counselor. The session typically lasts twenty to forty minutes.
Stage 1: Lay the groundwork for the session. Let relief workers know the goal is for them
to return to work as soon as possible. Find out what happened: Ask the members of the
group to tell about the event that led up to the meeting.
Stage 2: Explore the thoughts and feelings and reactions of the several individuals
involved: “What did you think when this happened?” “How did you feel about this event
when it occurred?” “What was the worst part for you?” “How do you feel about it now?”
Reassure group members about their feelings. Be supportive.
Stage 3: Explore the coping strategies the group members are using: How are they
dealing with the event or incident. Do they still have needs that are unmet? What would
help for them right now? What are their plans for dealing with this event (or similar
events) in the future? What would help in the future?
Stage 4: In some instances, a brief rest or diversion (a cup of coffee, a short walk) or a
directed relaxation exercise (e.g., breathing, visualization – see below) may suffice to
enable the person to recover their own sense of competency and direction.
Stage 5: Follow up: Maintain an expectation that the person will rapidly return to the
activities they need to perform. Where a relief worker’s return to work after a short break
is the expected result of intervention, it may be appropriate to follow up within a very
short period (e.g. twenty minutes).
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing
What It Is : A structured technique to help individuals and groups process
their disaster experience and bring closure to it.
People It Is Aimed At: relief workers, disaster victims (direct and indirect)
When to Use it: with relief workers, periodically and before returning to
non-relief activities. With victims, several days to a year
after the disaster
Debriefing was initially developed for use with emergency and relief workers, as
part of a larger program of interventions aimed at forestalling the emergence of
disabling symptoms or minimizing their enduring effect. Its use with direct victims of
disaster is somewhat controversial. It should not be used as a "one-off" intervention (i.e.,
a single intervention, with no other follow-up or support offered) or if it does not include
instruction on coping with stress. Its routine use with disaster victims who are not
showing unusual signs of distress or who are not seen as being especially at risk is
questionable. It is also inappropriate insituations in which severe stress and danger are
ongoing. It has been used, with reported success, with groups of disaster victims
identified as having symptoms or otherwise being at especially high risk, however.
Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is a structured group discussion. 3 Its
goal is to help people build an account of traumatic experiences so as to help prevent the
intense emotions and experiences of the experiences from becoming entrenched in the
form of disabling symptoms. It allows people to share powerfully charged feelings of
anger, helplessness, or fear, in a way that helps diffuse them. They learn that these
reactions are experienced by others, too, and are “normal.” They learn that, though they
may have had different specific experiences in the disaster, they are not alone.
Debriefing is usually done in a group setting. The group may consist of a work
team of relief workers, a pre-existing work team (e.g., the crew of a train, a work team in
a factory), a group of neighbors, a family, or a group of survivors assembled on an ad hoc
basis. The group may consist of up to fifteen or so members.
Debriefing is carried out at least a few days after the traumatic event. If it is
attempted too soon after the disaster, the short-term emotional reactions (e.g., disbelief,
denial, a sense of unreality, delayed reactions) and preoccupation with dealing with
practical issues may interfere, and repeated retelling of the disaster story may reinforce a
sense of helplessness. Other techniques to help people regain a support network, reduce
anxiety, and establish a sense of mastery can be carried out in the meantime.
The CISD model of intervention was originally proposed by J. Mitchell in the Journal of Emergency
Medical Services, 1983.
Debriefing may continue to be a useful technique months or even several years
after the disaster. At this stage, correcting cognitive distortions and inaccurate
evaluations of victims’ own roles and inaccurate estimations of ongoing threat, providing
knowledge of common responses, and dealing with reactions to the relief and recovery
process assume greater importance.
Debriefing usually involves a single session, lasting about two to three hours. If
the participants show lingering or especially intense reactions, additional sessions may be
added or individual counseling may be used as a follow up activity. If necessary, a
shortened version may also be carried out. (With relief workers, who continue to be
exposed to trauma, multiple shorter sessions are often used).
When possible, it is helpful to have two disaster counselors meeting with the
group. One plays the primary role of leading the group discussion process, questioning,
listening, and giving information. The second is available to spend time with any
participants who need to leave the group due to their distress as well as helping guide the
overall process of the group. (As an additional benefit, the two counselors can debrief
each other about their responses to the session).
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing proceeds through a series of pre-planned
phases. It can be modified in a variety of ways, to take into account the needs of
individual victims, cultural differences, the effects of different kinds of disasters, etc. The
guidelines that follow are meant to be suggestive, rather than a rigid set of rules.
Phase 1: Introduction: Introduce yourself and explain what the purpose of the session
is. Give an overview of the process: (i.e., it will last about two hours; people will be
asked to tell their stories of the disaster and their reactions; information about normal
reactions to disasters will be offered). Describe the goals (helping people understand
what is happening to them and why, so that they can manage their reactions more
effectively and with minimum anxiety and disruption to their lives.). Seek to normalize
people’s experiences: unusual emotional symptoms are to be expected, although lack of
symptoms is also normal. Answer questions. Address participants’ fears and possible
misconceptions (e.g., it is not psychotherapy; participation does not mean they are
The rules for the session should be stated: (a) No one is required to speak,
although they are encouraged to do so. (b) Judgement or blaming others will not be
allowed. (c) Everyone must listen to the others and let them have their say. (d)
Participants should speak for themselves, not for others. (e) If anyone is very upset, they
should still try to stay in the group. If they have to leave to recompose themselves, they
may (accompanied by one of the counselors, if two are leading the group), but they
should return promptly. (f) The proceedings are confidential: no one can talk about the
substance of what others said outside the group (no “gossip”).
Phase 2: Narratives: In this phase, the aim is sharing facts and collectively creating a
picture of what happened. “Tell us who you are and what happened from your
perspective. Who would like to start?” Include everyone’s account of what happened to
them (although, again, participants can pass if they choose to). Refrain from focusing on
psychological reactions at this point. If participants begin to talk about their reactions,
gently steer them back to the “facts.” With relief workers, the starting point may be to ask
about what their role was in the relief effort, how long they have been on the job, and
whether there were any troubling situations.
Phase 3: Reactions: In this phase, a shared inventory of thoughts and feelings is
developed. Participants learn that others share their symptoms, which lessens feelings of
isolation and shame. They also learn that thoughts and feelings are related, and that
changes in understanding can lead to changes in feelings.
(a) Go around the room and ask about people’s cognitive reactions at the time of
the incident. “What were your first thoughts? What did you think next?” “What did you
do then?” Then turn to reactions in the aftermath of the events. “What did you think when
the event was over?”
(b) Now shift to reports of feelings, rather than thoughts. Ask participants to
describe their feelings, linking them to their thoughts and appraisals of the situation.
“How did you feel then?” “What was the worst thing about the experience for you?”
“What aspect of the events caused/causes you the most pain?” Ask about the reactions of
the participants’ family and other significant people in their lives. Look for any feelings
that family members or other significant people didn’t understand what had happened to
them or that family members increased their anxiety by the way they expressed concern.
Ask about subsequent reactions (e.g., “that night” or “the next day ”). Ask about both
physical reactions and emotional symptoms.
Emotional expressions at this stage (and possibly at others) are to be expected.
This should be accepted, but contained. If a participant is unable to contain his or her
feelings to a degree that it becomes hard for the group to continue, he or she should be
asked to leave the room (accompanied by the co-leader of the group) until they can
compose themselves. The expectation should be that they will return within a few
(c) Continue to explore the sequence of thoughts and feelings in the days or weeks
following the event, moving into the present.
(d) Now begin to shift back from emotions. Explore coping strategies. “How did
you deal with it? How are you dealing with it?” “What do you usually do when you feel
this way?” “What has helped you at other times to cope with problems?” “What could
you do to help yourself next time you feel this way?” “Were there any positive aspects of
the experience?” (With relief workers, helping identify positive or hopeful memories is
especially important, since it may help them return to their relief work).
Phase 4: Education: In this phase, the focus shifts more formally to education, although
educational interventions may be made throughout the process.
(a) Summarize the session, bringing together the narratives and the responses
(thoughts, actions, feelings).
(b) Warn participants that their symptoms may not subside instantly and that new
symptoms may appear. Recognize the potential for some difficult times. Hold out
the expectation that this will be for a limited time, however. Be realistic, though:
it can take months or even a year or more for symptoms to subside. At the same
time, teach participants that symptoms are not universal and that a lack of
symptoms is just as “normal” as symptoms.
(c) Teach techniques of stress management (e.g., relaxation exercises).
Emphasize the importance of getting rest, having a good diet, getting exercise.
Encourage talking with others. Encourage identifying concrete steps they need to
(d) Identify those who need immediate help (e.g., desensitization of phobic
symptoms). Arrange for follow-up or referral.
(e) Give information on sources of further help. Distribute and pamphlets or
leaflets available on responses to disasters.
(f) Arrange for follow-up.
Phase 5: Follow-up: Two or more weeks later, follow up, either by a formal
questionnaire or by a brief interview. Track recovery or lack of it. Identify what has been
helpful. Identify problems needing further attention.
Variations and adaptations:
1. With disaster relief workers (assuming that they are not themselves primary victims of
the disaster), debriefing is a response not to their experience of the disaster itself but to
the stresses and strains of relief work. It may be useful to carry out a debriefing session
periodically (e.g., once a week or even more often). In any event, a session should be
scheduled before relief workers from outside the disaster community return home to their
“everyday” lives.
An end-of-service debriefing session should focus on issues such as:
How did you get involved? What was your role? Did you feel trained for it/
prepared for it? What were your initial expectations and initial reactions?
What were your later experiences? What did you do and think at each stage?
What was especially difficult for you? What made you feel helpless, angry,
guilty? Did any of your experiences trigger memories of bad things that have
happened to you?
What went well? What parts made you feel good about the experience?
What were your relationships like with other relief workers? How did you get
What are your feelings towards the victims now?
How has it been for your family for you to be away? What do you think their
expectations are for your return? What is it like to finish? Do you anticipate
difficulties in resuming your normal life? Do you have regrets at leaving?
What did this experience mean to you? What did you learn for yourself? What did
you learn that can be useful in future disaster work?
2. Debriefing can be conducted with a variety of audiences and under a variety of
With a very large group (more than twenty or so), it is impossible for every
person present to share their experiences and the emphasis shifts to the
educational portions. (With relief workers who are about to return home, the
debriefing should be set up so that everyone gets a chance to speak. In this
situation, two shorter but smaller sessions is preferable to one longer, overly
large session).
Debriefing can even be done one-on-one, when necessary.
Debriefing can be done using a family unit as the group. This may be
especially useful if there is evidence that a child is in distress or at risk of
future difficulties.
3. Debriefing can be adapted to various cultural situations. For instance, groups formed
in response to a volcanic eruption in the Philippines replaced the training in relaxation
exercises with prayer as part of the sessions. Other traditional healing rituals could be
incorporated in a similar fashion.
Stress Reduction Techniques
What They Are: Technique for helping individuals reduce stress and anxiety
People It Is Aimed At: Relief workers, victims
When to Use it: At times of stress or on regular basis
Disasters produce a great amount of stress and anxiety, both immediately and
over the weeks and months that follow. A variety of techniques may be useful in reducing
stress and anxiety.
Rest and recreation: Both brief periods of rest in the course of the day’s activities and
adequate sleep are important, both for relief workers and survivors. Understandably, the
emergency created by a disaster may interfere with these in the first hours or days after
the disaster. As soon as the most urgent, life-and-death rescue needs are met, however
encourage relief workers to permit themselves to take a break or a short nap and ensure
that adequate facilities are available for these. Encourage those supervising relief efforts
to schedule relief workers shifts so as to ensure that the workers get adequate sleep.
Recreational activities, ranging from card games to watching television to participating in
games may be helpful, both for adults (relief workers and primary disaster victims) and
for children and adolescents. In part, these serve as a diversion, preventing “ruminating”
about the disaster. They also help restore a sense of normalcy and control over one’s life.
Ventilation: Allowing relief workers and survivors to talk about their experiences and
feelings in both informal and formal settings relieves stress. Repetitive restatements or
rumination, however, do not relieve stress and may promote depression, however, and
should be discouraged. Divert the discussion on to other topics, provide diversions, or use
other approaches to promoting relaxation.
Exercise: Physical activity helps dissipate stress. Provide opportunities for relief workers
and primary disaster victims (e.g., in a shelter) to get exercise: taking a walk, jogging,
engaging in a group exercise “class,” engaging in an athletic event, dancing.
Relaxation exercises: Several types of relaxation exercise can easily be adapted for use in
disaster settings to help clients reduce anxiety and stress. These include breathing
exercises, visualization exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, and combinations of these.
Breathing exercises: The client is taught to breathe in a controlled way, while
attending closely to their own breathing.
Visualization exercises: The client is asked to provide an account of a setting or
situation he or she finds very relaxing (e.g., walking in the woods) and is then
asked to visualize this scene in a very detailed way. The particular scene to be
visualized should be worked out in discussion with the intended user of the
Muscle relaxation exercises: The client is asked to practice first contracting, then
relaxing different muscle groups until the entire musculature is relaxed, while
concentrating on the feelings of relaxation in the muscles.
First, the counselor leads an individual or a small group of individuals through
these exercises. If the victims have tape cassette players available, it may be helpful to
record a relaxation exercise for each client to listen to and engage in on his or her own.
Individuals can also be taught how to use the procedures on their own without an
auxiliary tape.
Relaxation procedures can be used on an “as needed” basis (i.e., at a time when
the relief worker or survivor is feeling “stressed out”), either on their own or with the
help of the counselor. A regularly scheduled relaxation event, whether consisting of
relaxation exercises, prayer, stretching exercises, or other techniques, may be offered at a
consistent time once or twice a day. Many people also find that following the relaxation
procedure on their own two or three times a day on a routine basis increases their ability
to deal with stress throughout the day.
After learning a full relaxation exercise, a shortened form can be developed. Such
brief forms are especially useful for using “as needed.”
For a person to be willing to allow themselves to relax by following the directions
of another person (the disaster counselor) requires some trust. Teaching relaxation
exercises should be delayed until the counselor and the client have created a trusting
relationship. This is especially true of disaster survivors who have developed post
traumatic stress disorder. Others, who are very anxious or very depressed, may find
relaxation exercises problematic. Relaxation exercises should be approached with caution
with such clients. If the client begins to become agitated, stop the exercise.
Contraindications to the use of relaxation exercises
Relaxation exercises are not for everyone. They should be used with extreme
caution or not at all in the following circumstances:
Presence of marked dissociative symptoms
Anger as the primary response to trauma
State of acute grief
State of extreme anxiety or panic
History of severe psychopathology prior to the trauma
Current substance abuse
Severe depression and/or suicidal ideation
Presence of marked on-going stressors
Strong need of client to regain control
Also note that visualization exercises can inadvertently re-trigger traumatic
experiences (e.g., using a walk through the woods as a "pleasant" image with a refugee
who escaped through the woods). Similarly, breathing exercises may be frightening to
those who have been buried under rubble.
Sample scripts for several types of relaxation exercise can be found in Appendix B.
Expressive Techniques
What They Are: Techniques which do not require the ability to explicitly label
emotional states
People It Is Aimed At: Children; adults who have trouble responding to
questions or describing feelings in verbal form
When To Use It: Several days to a year or more after the disaster
It is difficult for children to discuss their emotional problems. Their verbal
abilities are relatively undeveloped and they lack facility at labeling their emotions. This
is especially the case for children below the age of eleven or so, but even older children
and adolescents, and not a few adults, may have difficulty or inhibitions about explicitly
talking about their feelings. In these settings, techniques that permit expression and
exploration of feelings in non-verbal form (e.g., play, art, dance, games) or in forms that,
although they use words, do not require the person to explicitly identify and label
emotional states (e.g., writing poetry, role playing, puppet play) are useful. These
techniques can be collectively labeled “expressive techniques.”
Underlying these techniques is the notion that play, artistic creation, and similar
activities are systems of communication and interpersonal interaction. Through play and
similar activities, the child reveals meaningful information about his or her emotional
problems, inner thought processes and states, desires, and anxieties.
As with conventional verbal techniques, the goals of expressive techniques
include ventilation of feelings, creating a new narrative about terrifying events, regaining
a sense of control and mastery, working through grief, finding and feeling support from
peers, and normalizing unexpected and unfamiliar reactions. They also help establish a
trusting relationship between the child and the counselor.
Expressive techniques are commonly used with children up to the age of eleven or
so, and with children as young as two to four. They can be used with people of any age,
however, In what follows, the word “child” will be used to indicate the person with
whom the technique is used, with the understanding that the “child” may, in fact, be an
adolescent or adult.
Expressive techniques can be used with a single child, but are also easily adapted
for groups (either ad hoc or a school class). In some cases, children experience a disaster
but the parents do not experience it directly. This would be the case, for example, if there
were an explosion or other violent incident at a school. In these circumstances, although
parents might benefit from group debriefing sessions, the children might be treated in
their classes. If, however, the child’s parents were themselves also primary victims of the
disaster or if the child is especially distressed, it may be helpful to involve the whole
family unit together. A mix of expressive and verbal techniques might then be used.
Expressive techniques involve an active role for the counselor. They do not just
consist in letting the child play. Undirected play may be diverting and healing for the
child. However, monotonous, repetitive, ritualized play by an isolated child is a sign of
trauma. It does not release the child from distress. In expressive therapy, the counselor
participates; limits (emphasizes rules, encourages frustration tolerance, prevents overt
aggression against others); interprets (“I wonder if you felt like your doll when….”).
Just as with other techniques, the user of expressive techniques sho uld be
sensitive to the stage of response to the disaster. Immediately after the disaster, play may
help children acknowledge and ventilate their feelings. This helps reduce anxiety and
provides an opportunity to provide the children with accurate information and to screen
for those in severe distress. Lack of expression of intense emotion at this time is not
necessarily a sign of severe disturbance, requiring treatment, however. The child who has
lost a parent in a disaster, for instance, may be in a state of shock and denial for a week or
two after the event and may not be fully able to communicate intensively about it for
several weeks beyond that. Providing repeated opportunities for the child to express him
or herself, when ready, is appropriate. More extensive intervention must wait until the
child is able to handle it.
Expressive therapy may, initially, at least, be either “directive” or “non-directive.”
In non-directive play, the child’s free activity (e.g., with puppets, dolls, or art materials)
is observed. The counselor gently interacts with the child, entering the child’s fantasy
world but in doing so, seeking to help the child explore feelings and thoughts.
In directive or pre-arranged play, the child is asked to re-enact some part of his or
her experience. This might take the form of a re-enactment with dolls or puppets, or it
might take the form of drawing or modeling with clay. An alternative form, especially
with older children, might involve the child writing poems or stories that draw on his or
her experience. The goal is to help the child eventually replay the experience with a
different ending or in a fashion in which the child is exhibiting mastery.
The school may be an appropriate place for some expressive techniques (e.g.,
story writing, role playing). In addition, the teacher can teach children about the
responses to be expected after a disaster, allow for the ventilation of feelings, teach
coping skills and problem-solving techniques (through role playing, games, “completethis-story” techniques), reassure. Aside from specific activities engaged in at school,
merely going to school regularly has a healing effect. School provides structure and
normalcy. Just as disaster workers benefit from the expectation that, after a crisis, they
should get help but then return to their job promptly, so children benefit from the clear
expectation that they will return to school promptly after a disaster. If extended shelter
stays or stays in refugee camps are necessary and children cannot return to their regular
school, it is important to create an ad hoc school. Teachers can receive brief training as
disaster counselors with a special emphasis on work with children in their schools, using
expressive techniques. In some settings, children in mid-adolescence have also been
trained as peer counselors.
Some expressive techniques
Art techniques
Free drawing, painting, modeling in clay
Drawing “a person” or drawing “your family”
“Squiggles”: Each takes a turn making a picture from the other’s “squiggles”
and then makes up a story about it
Drawings, maps, clay models of disaster scene
Creating a group or community mural
Doll play
Human or animal dolls (commercial or homemade or paper dolls)
Other “props” – toy soldiers, trucks, etc.
Puppet Play
Free interactions with puppets
Re-enactments of experiences (in disaster or elsewhere); role playing
Story Telling
Child tells story, adult re-tells it with a “healthier” ending/solution/attribution
Making books of stories and poems and drawings
Role playing; re-enactments of actual experiences in the disaster; role playing
of coping strategies
Mock escapes from the disaster
Oral histories: adults tell stories about the history of the community (to adults and
Event and emotion diaries
Relaxation techniques
Visualization, with a “magic word” to trigger the relaxed state produced
Exercise; active games; races
Muscle relaxation
Neck and back massage
Appendix A: Assessment Instruments
I. The Self Reporting Questionnaire (SRQ) 4
The Self Reporting Questionnaire (SRQ) is a measure of general psychological distress
developed by the World Health Organization and intended for use with adults and older
adolescents (ages 15 up). If the person completing the questionnaire does not have at
least five years of schooling, the questions should be read to them. This is permissible in
any case.
Interpretation: No universally applicable cut off score can be used under all
circumstances. In most settings, however, five to seven positive responses on items 1-20
(the “neurotic” symptoms) indicate the presence of significant psychological distress.
Item 21 addresses drinking behavior, a problem in its own right and potentially a signal
of distress. A single response to any of items 22-24 (the “psychotic” symptoms”)
indicates serious symptoms and need for help. Items 25-29 refer to common symptoms of
post traumatic stress disorder. A single response to any of these items warrants follow-up.
Translations : Translations of the SRQ into Arabic, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Somali,
and Spanish are available upon request, together with further information, from the
World Health Organization (see footnote 4). The SRQ has been translated into a number
of other languages, including Afrikans, Bahasa Malaysia, Bengali, Filipino, Italian,
Kiswahili, Njanja Lusaka, Shona, Siswati, and South Sotho. References to studies using
these translations, as well as additional information about the SRQ can be found in A
User’s Guide to the Self Reporting Questionnaire (see footnote 4).
The SRQ was developed by the World Health Organization. For additional details on its development and
use and a bibliography, see the WHO document, A Users’ Guide to the Self Reporting Questionnaire
(document WHO/MNH/PSF/94.8), available from the Division of Mental Health, World Health
Organization, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. I have added items 25-29 to explicitly address post
traumatic symptoms.
Self Reporting Questionnaire
Name: ___________________________________
Date: _____________
Address: ______________________________________________________
Instructions: Please read these instructions completely before you fill in the
questionnaire. The following questions are related to certain pains and problems that
may have bothered you in the last 30 days. If you think the question applies to you and
you had the described problem in the last 30 days, put a mark on the line under YES. On
the other hand, if the question does not apply to you and you did not have the problem in
the last 30 days, put a mark on the line under NO. If you are unsure how to answer a
question, please give the best answer you can. We would like to reassure you that the
answers you provide here are confidential.
1. Do you often have headaches?
2. Is your appetit e poor?
3. Do you sleep badly?
4. Are you easily frightened?
5. Do you feel nervous, tense, or worried?
6. Do your hands shake?
7. Is your digestion poor?
8. Do you have trouble thinking clearly?
9. Do you feel unhappy?
10. Do you cry more than usual?
11. Do you find it difficult to enjoy your daily activities?
12. Do you find it difficult to make a decision?
13. Is your daily work suffering?
14. Are you unable to play a useful part in life?
15. Have you lost interest in things?
Go on to the next page
____ 16. Do you feel that you are a worthless person?
17. Has the thought of ending your life been in your mind?
18. Do you feel tired all the time?
19. Do you have uncomfortable feelings in your stomach?
20. Are you easily tired?
21. Do you drink alcohol more than usual?
22. Do you feel that somebody has been trying to harm you in some way?
23. Have you noticed any interference or anything else unusual with your
24. Do you ever hear voices without knowing where they come from or
which other people cannot hear?
25. Do you have distressing dreams about the disaster or are their times when
it seems like you are re-living your experiences in the disaster?
26. Do you avoid activities, places, people, or thoughts that remind you of the
27. Do you seem less interested than you used to be in your usual activities
and friends?
28. Do you feel very upset when you are in a situation that reminds you of the
disaster or when you think about the disaster?
29. Are you having trouble experiencing or expressing your feelings?
II.The Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PSC) 5
The Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PSC) is a measure of distress in children, aged four
to sixteen. There are two versions.
1. The PSC-P is completed by the parent (or teacher) of a child aged 4-16. If the
parent’s reading ability is believed to be below the fifth grade level, it should be read
to them. It can be administered by reading it to the parent even if their reading level is
adequate to the task. The PSC-P consists of items that are rated as “never” (scored 0),
“sometimes” (scored 1), or “often” (scored 2). Part I (items 1-35) is a measure of
general distress. Part II (items 36-50) contains additional items more specific to
disaster situations. The two parts of the PSC-P are scored separately. The “Part I
Total” is the sum of the scores on items 1-35. The “Part II Total” is the sum of the
scores on items 36-45.
2. The PSC-Y is a self-report form, completed by the child himself or herself. It is
suitable for children aged 9-14. The PSC-Y should be read to children younger than
12 or to any child not able to read at a fifth grade level. It can be administered by
reading it to the client even if their reading level is adequate to the task. The PSC-Y
consist of items that are rated as “never” (scored 0), “sometimes” (scored 1), or
“often” (scored 2). Part I (items 1-35) is a measure of general distress. Part II (items
36-50) contains additional items more specific to disaster situations. The two parts of
the PSC-Y are scored separately. The “Part I Total” is the sum of the scores on items
1-35. The “Part II Total” is the sum of the scores on items 36-43.
Interpretation of the PSC-P:
Part I: For four and five year old children, a score of 24 or higher suggests moderate to
severe distress. For children aged six to sixteen, a score of 28 or higher suggests
significant distress. These cut-off scores should be regarded as approximate. There is no
universally applicable cut off score that can be used under all circumstances. In some
situations, use of a slightly lower cut off may be justified.
Part II: No norms are available. Based on the content of the items, in the context of a
post-disaster evaluation, a score of 4 or more suggests the need for further evaluation of
the child.
Interpretation of the PSC-Y:
Part I: A score of 30 or higher suggests moderate to severe psychosocial distress. This
cut-off score should be regarded as approximate. There is no universally applicable cut
The PSC was developed by Michael Jellinek, J. Michael Murphy, and associates. A detailed discussion
and bibliography can be found at their website, I have added “Part II,”
which addresses some common responses to disasters more specifically.
off score that can be used under all circumstances. In some situations, use of a slightly
lower cut off may be justified.
Part II: No norms are available. Based on the content of the items, a score of 2 or more on
items 36-38, which suggest psychotic experiences, or a score of 4 or more on items 4043, which reflect post traumatic responses, suggest the need for further evaluation of the
Translations : The PSC-P has been translated into a number of languages, including
Spanish, Chinese, Swahili, Khmer, and Haitian Creole. For further information on these,
see the references at the PSC website,, which also contains
additional details on this measure.
Pediatric Symptom Checklist- Parent Report Form (PSC-P)
Child’s Name: ______________________________________________________
Your Name: ____________________________________ Date: ____________
Address: __________________________________________________________
Instructions: Please mark under the heading that best describes this child.
1. Complains of aches and pains………………………...
2. Spends more time alone………………………………
3. Tires easily, has little energy…………………………
4. Fidgety, unable to sit still…………………………….
5. Has trouble with teacher……………………………...
6. Less interested in school……………………………..
7. Acts as if driven by a motor………………………….
8. Daydreams too much…………………………………
9. Distracted easily………………………………………
10. Is afraid of new situations……………………………
11. Feels sad, unhappy……………………………………
12. Is irritable, angry……………………………………..
13. Feels hopeless………………………………………..
14. Has trouble concentrating……………………………
15. Less interested in friends…………………………….
16. Fights with other children……………………………
17. Absent from school…………………………………..
18. School grades dropping………………………………
19. Is down on him or herself……………………………
20. Visits the doctor with doctor finding nothing wrong…
21. Has trouble sleeping………………………………….
22. Worries a lot………………………………………….
23. Wants to be with you more than before………………
24. Feels he or she is bad…………………………………
25. Takes unnecessary risks……………………………...
26. Gets hurt frequently…………………………………..
27. Seems to be having less fun………………………….
28. Acts younger than children his or her age……………
29. Does not listen to rules………………………….
30. Does not show feelings……………………………….
Go on to next page
Does not understand other people’s feelings…………
Teases others…………………………………………
Blames others for his or her troubles…………………
Takes things that do not belong to him or her………..
Refuses to share……………………………………...
Gets nervous or scared or upset for no reason………
Thinks a lot about bad things that have happened…..
Does special things so nothing bad will happen…….
Has bad dreams or nightmares………………………
Says scary thoughts just pop into his or her head …..
Fears certain animals or situations or places………..
Brags or boasts a lot…………………………………
Wets bed at night……………………………………
Gets jumpy at loud noises, startles easily……………
Repeats certain acts over and over…………………..
PART I TOTAL: ________
PART II TOTAL: ________
Pediatric Symptom Checklist - Youth Report (PSC-Y)
Name: ____________________________________________
Address: __________________________________________
Date: ___________
Instructions: Please place a mark under the heading that best fits you:
I complain of aches or pains……………………..
I spend more time alone………………………….
I tire easily, have little energy……………………
I am fidgety; I can’t sit still………………………
I have trouble with my teachers………………….
I am less interested in school……………………..
I act as if I am driven by a motor………………...
I daydream too much…………………………….
I am easily distracted…………………………….
I am afraid of new situations…………………….
I feel sad, unhappy……………………………….
I am irritable, angry………………………………
I feel hopeless ……………………………………
I have trouble concentrating …………………….
I am less interested in friends …………………..
I fight with other children ………………………
I am absent from school a lot …………………..
My school grades are dropping …………………
I am down on myself ……………………………
I visit doctor with doctor finding nothing wrong
Go on to next page
21. I have trouble sleeping..............................……………. _____
22. I worry a lot.........................................………………… _____
23. I want to be with parent more than before.........……..... _____
24. I feel that I am bad...............................……………….
25 I get hurt frequently...............................………………. _____
27. I seem to be having less fun.........................…………... _____
28. I act younger than my age.............………..…………... _____
29. I do not listen to rules...........................…………...….
30. I do not show feelings................................…………..
31. I do not understand other people's feelings.........…….... _____
32. I tease others....................................…………………... _____
33. I blame others for my troubles...................………….... _____
34. I take things that do not belong to me..............………... _____
35. I refuse to share....................................……………….. _____
36. I feel that somebody has been trying to harm me…….. _____
37. I notice interference or something else unusual……..
with my thinking
38. I hear voices without knowing where they come ….… _____
from or which other people cannot hear
40. I have distressing dreams about my experiences ……… _____
or times when it seems like I am re-living my
terrible experiences
41. I avoid activities, places, people, or thoughts that …….. _____
me of the disaster
42. I seem less interested than I used to be in my ………
usual activities and friends?
43. I feel very upset when I am in a situation that reminds.. _____
me of the disaster or when I think about the disaster
TOTAL ITEMS 1-35 __________
TOTAL ITEMS 36-38 __________
TOTAL ITEMS 39-43 __________
III. The Relief Worker Burnout Questionnaire
The Relief Worker Burnout Questionnaire is intended to help detect burn out among
relief workers. Even relief workers not showing signs of acute distress (e.g., as indicated
by a high score on the Self Reporting Questionnaire) may develop burnout, with loss of
efficiency and potential long term consequences.
Interpretation: No formal norms are available for this measure. Based on the content of
the items, a score of 0 – 15 suggests the worker is probably coping adequately with the
stress of his or her work. A score of 16-25 suggests the worker is suffering from work
stress and would be wise to take preventive action. A score of 26-35 suggests possible
burn out. A score above 35 indicates probable burnout.
Relief Worker Burn Out Questionnaire
Name: ____________________________________________ Date: _________
Instructions: Rate each of the following items in terms of how much the symptom was
true of you in the last month.
0 = Never
1 = Occasionally (less than one time per week)
2 = Somewhat often (one or two times a week)
3 = Frequently (three or four times a week)
4 = Almost always (almost every day)
1. Do you tire easily? Do you feel fatigued a lot of the time, even
when you have gotten enough sleep?
2. Are people annoying you by their demands and stories about
their daily activities? Do minor inconveniences make you irritable or
3. Do you feel increasingly critical, cynical, and disenchanted?
4. Are you affected by sadness you can’t explain? Are you crying
more than usual?
5. Are you forgetting appointments, deadlines, personal possessions?
Have you become absent-minded?
6. Are you seeing close friends and family members less frequently?
Do you find yourself wanting to be alone and avoiding even your close
7. Does doing even routine things seem like an effort?
8. Are you suffering from physical complaints such as stomachaches,
headaches, lingering colds, general aches and pains?
9. Do you feel confused or disoriented when the activity of the day stops?
10. Have you lost interest in activities that you previously were interested
in or even enjoyed?
11. Do you have little enthusiasm for your work? Do you feel negative, futile, or
depressed about your work?
12. Are you less efficient than you think you should be?
13. Are you eating more or less, smoking more cigarettes, are using more alcohol
or drugs to cope with your work?
_______ TOTAL SCORE (Add up scores for items 1 – 13)
Appendix B: Relaxation Scripts
I. Guided Relaxation Exercise
[The following is a script for a relaxation exercise combining breathing and muscle
relaxation. It should be read to the client in a calm, slow voice, allowing time for the
client to take and hold breaths, to let out their breath slowly, and to first tighten, then
relax their muscles slowly, as indicated in the script.]
Close your eyes and put yourself in a comfortable position. If you need to, you can make
adjustments now or as we go along. Quiet moves will not disturb your relaxation.
Help your body begin to relax by taking some slow, deep breaths. Take a deep breath
now. Hold your breath and count silently to three, or five, or ten. Take the amount of time
holding your breath that feels good to you. Then let your breath out in an easy, soothing
way. Breathe in again and hold it a few seconds… and, when you are ready, again let it
out. As you let your breath out, imagine breathing out the tension in your body, out
through your nose and mouth, breathing out the tension as you breath out. Do it yet again,
breathing in slowly… holding it… and out.
I will now going to teach you an easy method of relaxation. *Make a tight fist with both
hands… very tight … so tight you can feel the tension in your forearms. Now, let go
suddenly … Notice the feeling of relaxation flowing up your arms… Make a fist with
both hands again… and suddenly let go. Again, notice the feeling of relaxation in your
arms.… Let your mind move this feeling of muscle relaxation up your arms… through
your shoulders…into your chest… into your stomach… into your hips. Continue to focus
on this feeling of relaxation, moving it into your upper legs… through your knees… into
your lower legs… your ankles and feet… Now let this feeling of comfortable relaxation
move from your shoulders into your neck… into your jaw and forehead and scalp…Take
a deep breath, and as you exhale, you can become even more deeply relaxed… You can
deepen your relaxation by practicing this again. [Go back to the place above marked by
the asterisk (*) and repeat this section a second time].
However you feel right now is just fine. As you become even more relaxed and
comfortable, each time you breath out you can continue to drift even deeper into a state
of comfort… safe and serene … When you relax, as you are now, you can think more
clearly or simply allow yourself to enjoy feelings of comfort, serenity, and quiet. As a
result of this relaxation, you can look forward to feeling more alert and energetic later
on… You can enjoy a greater feeling of personal confidence and control over how you
feel, how you think, and what you believe. You can feel more calm, more comfortable,
more at ease, and more in control of what’s important to you….
When you’re ready, you can open your eyes, You can feel alert, or calm, or have
whatever feelings are meaningful to you at this time. As you open your eyes, you may
want to stretch and flex gently, as though you are waking from a wonderful nap.
II. Brief Muscle Relaxation Exercise
[The following is a breathing and muscle relaxation exercise for achieving relaxation
rapidly. It should not be used until the client is able to use the longer version (above)
effectively. As with the lengthier script, it should be read in a slow, calm voice, allowing
the client time to carry out the directions.]
Take two or three deep breaths. Each time, hold your breath for a few seconds, then let it
out slowly, concentrating on the feeling of the air leaving your body… Now tighten both
fists, and tighten your forearms and biceps… Hold the tension for five or six
seconds…Now relax the muscles. When you relax the tension, do it suddenly, as if you
are turning off a light....Concentrate on the feelings of relaxation in your arms for 15 or
20 seconds…Now tense the muscles of your face and tense your jaw… Hold it for five or
six seconds… now relax and concentrate on the relaxation for fifteen or twenty
seconds…Now arch your back and press out your stomach as you take a deep breath…
Hold it… and relax….Now tense your thighs and calves and buttocks…Hold…and now
relax. Concentrate on the feelings of relaxation throughout your body, breathing slowly
and deeply.
III. Guided Visualization Exercise (Example)
What follows is intended purely as an example, not as a script. Visualization exercises
are based on identifying a setting that the particular client finds relaxing. It may be a
particular place to sit in a forest, a walk by the ocean, watching the sun set and the night
come on from in front of your house, or some other scene. What is important is that the
client identify a place where he or she feels safe and relaxed. In the example below, it is
walking on a path through the woods. Again, read it to the client in a slow, calm voice.
Put yourself in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Check whether or not your body
feels well supported and ready to become more comfortable. You can help your body
begin to relax by taking in an easy deep breath, holding it for a few moments and then
exhaling in a soothing, calming manner. Take in a deep breath now. Hold your breath and
count silently to three, or five, or ten. Take the amount of time holding your breath that
feels good to you. Then let your breath out in an easy, soothing exhalation. Breathe in
again and hold it a few seconds… and, when you are ready, again let it out. As you let
your breath out, imagine the tension in your body being breathed out with your breath,
out through your nose and mouth, breathing out the tension as you breath out. Do it yet
again, breathing in slowly… holding it… and out.
Now you can go to your safe place. Imagine yourself going to the woods that you love…
You walk slowly across a field, toward the line of trees… As you get closer, you can hear
the wind rustling in the leaves. You see the green leaves against the blue sky, and you can
see the tops of the trees swaying, in an ever-changing pattern as the breeze moves them…
You come to the edge of the woods. As you enter the woods, the air gets cooler, and the
fragrance of the leaves on the forest floor greets you. Along the path, the light is bright in
some places, dappled in others…The air is fresh, and the breeze cools your arms and
face. The leaves rustle under your feet. The smell and the sounds and the leaves rustling
make you feel happy and comfortable… At the side of the path, a patch of green moss
looks soft and cool ...You stop for a moment, and concentrate on the songs of the birds,
and the sounds of small animals scampering through the leaves… In the distance, a dove
coos… As you walk, you feel more and more relaxed and comfortable…You see a small
stream, the water meandering slowly, a leaf floating slowly down the stream. Beside the
stream is a patch of soft grass, and you sit on the grass, watching the leaf float down the
stream, hearing the water gurgling over the pebbles. The sun flashes on the water, making
jewel-like sparkles. You listen to the breeze in the leaves, the birds singing, the water
gurgling… As you sit and watch the sparkling water and listening to the gentle sounds of
the birds and the leaves in the breeze and breathing the cool fresh air, your body becomes
more and more relaxed… Now you stand up and slowly stretch, stretching every muscle
of your body … and slowly, slowly, you retrace your path. You walk along the path,
searching with your eyes for small flowers in the underbrush, recognizing a familiar
bush. You pass the mossy bank and soon, the edge of the forest nears. As you leave the
forest, the sun shines brightly, warming your skin, and you feel safe and rested and
Appendix C: Leaflets and Handouts
Children and Disasters
Coping With Disaster
III. Coping With Disaster: A Guide
for Relief Workers
disaster is frightening for everyone. For a child, it can be especially frightening.
Children have not yet learned a wide range of techniques for controlling fear. Even
more than for adults, a disaster threatens a child’s sense of control over his or her life.
Children experience the effects of disaster triply.
Even very young children are directly affected by experiences of death,
destruction, terror, personal physical assault, and by experiencing the absence or
powerlessness of their parents.
Children are also powerfully affected by the reactions of their parents and other
trusted adults (such as teachers) to the disaster. They look to adults for clues as to
how to act. If their parents and teachers react with fear, the child’s fear is
magnified. If they see their elders overcome with a sense of loss, they feel their
own losses more strongly.
Children’s fears may also stem from their imagination. Children have less ability
than adults to judge which fears are realistic and which are not. Regardless of the
source, a child’s responses to a disaster should be taken seriously. A child who
feels afraid, regardless of the reason, is afraid.
ost children respond sensibly and appropriately to disaster, especially if they
experience the protection, support, and stability of their parents and other trusted
adults. However, like adults, they may respond to disaster with a wide range of
Some Responses of Children to Disasters
Clinging, fears about separation, fears of strangers, fears of “monsters” or animals
Difficulty sleeping or refusing to go to bed
Compulsive, repetitive play which represents part of the disaster experience
Return to earlier behaviors, such as bed wetting or thumb sucking
Crying and screaming
Withdrawal; not wanting to be with other children
Fears, including nightmares and fears of specific sounds, sights, or objects
associated with the disaster
Aggressiveness, defiance, “acting out”
Resentfulness, suspiciousness, irritability
Headaches, stomach aches, vague aches and pains.
Problems at school (or refusal to go to school) and inability to concentrate
Feelings of shame
ometimes it is hard for parents and teachers to recognize children’s reactions to a
disaster. We all want everything to be “all right” for our children, and we come up
with all kinds of explanations to explain their conduct: We call it “willful” or believe that
“he (or she) will get over it.” The child, in turn, may feel ignored or misunderstood or not
nurtured. In the short run, feeling insecure, the child may inhibit expression of his or her
own feelings, or may “misbehave” even more, to get attention and nurture. In the long
term, letting the child’s feelings remain unappreciated can have negative long term
consequences for the child’s development.
What You Can Do To Help Your Child
Talk with your child about his or her feelings, without passing judgment. Allow the
child to cry or be sad. Don’t expect him or her to “be tough.” Talk about your own
feelings, as well. Encourage your child to draw pictures about the disaster or write
stories or poems about the disaster. This will help you understand how he or she
views what happened.
Provide your child with factual information about what happened and what is (or will
happen). Use simple, direct language your child can understand. Shielding a child
from unpleasant information usually leads to more difficulty in the future. Correct
any misunderstandings your child may have (such as that the disaster was, in some
way, his or her fault).
Reassure your child that he or she and you are safe. Hold and touch and be
affectionate with your child. Spend extra time with your child, especially at bedtime.
Many children are calmed by gentle back and neck massages.
If your child returns to babyish behaviors, such as bedwetting or thumb sucking,
initially try to be accepting. These are signs the child needs comforting and
reassurance. Do not shame the child (e.g., by calling him or her a “baby”). Resume
normal expectations only gradually.
Children are especially vulnerable to feeling abandoned when they are separated from
their parents. Avoid “protecting” your children by sending them away from the scene
of the disaster if this will separate them from their loved ones.
Children benefit from routine and structure. Initially, you may want to relax the usual
rules, but maintain family structure and responsibilities. Return the child to school as
soon as feasible after the disaster and expect regular attendance.
isasters affect people in many ways. The physical effects – loss of loved ones, pain
or physical disability, damage to or destruction of homes and property and cherished
belongings – are usually obvious. Short-term emotional effects, such as fear, acute
anxiety, feelings of emotional numbness, or grief, are very common.
Some Initial Responses to Disaster
Difficulty relaxing
Difficulty making decisions
Irritability, being startled easily
Guilty feelings
Feeling that “no one can understand
what I’ve been through”
Need to cling to others
Difficulty believing what has
Seeking information
Seeking help for yourself and your
Helpfulness to other disaster victims
Sudden anger
or most victims of disasters, these responses fade with time, but there may be longerterm emotional effects that do not fade. The emotional effects of a disaster may show
up immediately or may appear months later. They may be obviously related to the
disaster or their origin may go unrecognized.
Later Responses to Disaster
Grief, depression, despair, hopelessness; crying for “no apparent reason”
Anxiety, nervousness, being frightened easily, worrying
Feeling disoriented or confused
Feeling helpless and vulnerable
Suspiciousness, constant fear of harm
Sleep disturbances: insomnia, bad dreams, nightmares
Irritability, moodiness, anger
Headaches, digestive problems, diffuse muscular pains, sweats and chills, tremors,
loss of sexual desire
Flashbacks: feelings of “re-living” the experience, often accompanied by anxiety
Avoidance of thoughts about the disaster ; avoidance of places, pictures, sounds
reminding the victim of the disaster; avoidance of discussion about it
Increased marital conflict or other interpersonal conflict
Disaster Manual (Draft) – p. 99
Excessive alcohol or drug use
Difficulty concentrating, remembering; slow thinking
Difficulty making decisions and planning
Feelings of being detached from your body or from your experiences, as if they are
not happening to you
Feelings of ineffectiveness, shame, despair, guilt
Self-destructive and impulsive behavior
Suicidal ideation or attempts
What You Can Do
Recognize your own feelings. Strong feelings after a disaster are almost universal. It
is not “abnormal” or “crazy” to have strong feelings and unanticipated reactions.
Be tolerant of other people’s reactions – their irritability and short tempers. Disasters
are a time of stress for everyone.
Talk to others about your feelings. Talking helps relieve stress and helps you realize
that your feelings are shared by other victims. You are not alone.
Take care of yourself: Get enough rest. Eat properly. Take time off to do something
you enjoy. Get as much physical activity as possible, such as running or walking.
Learn relaxation exercises and use them regularly.
Seek out and share accurate information about assistance being offered and possible
resources, but do not spread rumors: Check out information about which you have
Do not allow yourself to become inactive or completely dependent on others. Get
involved in making decisions that affect you. Try to solve your own problems.
Get back to work and resume your normal family role and functions as soon as
Do not allow yourself to become isolated from others. Participate in community
responses to the disaster. Accept help from others, and offer help to others.
Disaster Manual (Draft) – p. 100
s a disaster relief worker, whether you are involved in rescue efforts immediately
following the disaster and those involved in longer-term relief work, you carry out
your work under difficult conditions. You may yourself be a direct victim of the disaster,
and have to deal with your own losses and your own grief. You may be exposed to grisly
experiences and you are certainly exposed to the powerful emotions and harrowing tales
of other victims. Your tasks may be physically difficult, exhausting, or dangerous, and
your work may leave little time for sleep or adequate rest. You may feel frustrated by
bureaucracy or by the sense that, no matter how much you do, it isn’t enough. And you
are exposed to the anger and apparent lack of gratitude of some victims.
t is extremely common for disaster relief workers to experience a range of powerful
emotions and reactions. For instance, you may have unexpected feelings of anger, rage,
despair, powerlessness, guilt, terror, or longing for a safe haven. These feelings may
distress you or make you feel that there is “something wrong” with you. Your sense of
humor may be stretched beyond its limits and your toleration for others’ failings becomes
limited. Your religious faith may be thrown into doubt. The anger of other relief workers
or victims may seem like a personal attack rather than a response to exhaustion.
fter a period of time on the job, many relief workers experience “burn-out.” You
may feel excessively tired (even if you have gotten enough sleep), have trouble
concentrating, or have a variety of physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal
disturbances, and sleep difficulties. This can lead to neglecting your own safety and
physical needs or to cynicism, mistrust of co-workers or supervisors, and inefficiency.
You may find yourself smoking too much, drinking too much coffee, or drinking too
isaster workers face additional stress when they complete their tasks and return
home, to their “regular” life. Your experience has been very different from your
normal routine, while your family’s routine has gone on with little change. Your family
members may make demands on you for attention and for help, while you still need time
to recover your balance. You may expect an unambivalent welcome, while they may be
feeling some anger at your having been gone. You may feel that they can not understand
what you’ve been through and that their experiences while you were gone were shallow
or meaningless. The crises of ordinary life may seem trivial to you, important to your
family. You may see or hear things at home that will remind you of your experiences in
relief work, which may trigger an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction. And you may
find yourself wishing, at times, for the excitement and camaraderie of the relief operation.
All of these stresses can produce marital and parent-child conflict.
Disaster Manual (Draft) – p. 101
What You Can Do
At the Disaster Site
Recognize, understand, and appreciate your own feelings. It is not “abnormal” or
“crazy” to have strong feelings and reactions to the experiences you are having.
Be tolerant of the reactions of other relief workers and victims – their irritability and
short tempers. Disasters are a time of stress for everyone.
Talk to other relief workers about your feelings. Talking helps relieve stress and helps
you realize that others share your feelings. Not coincidentally, it helps others
recognize the same thing. You are not alone.
Take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself is not a diversion from the “more
important” tasks of relief work. It is necessary to enable you to keep doing your job.
Get as much sleep as you can. Take rest breaks. Eat properly. Avoid drinking large
amounts of caffeine or alcohol. Take time off to do something you enjoy. Get as
much physical activity as possible, such as running or walking or engaging in sports.
Keep a journal. Learn relaxation exercises and use them regularly.
If an incident occurs that has really shaken you (whether a job-related incident or a
conflict with another relief worker or a victim), take a short break. Use a relaxation
exercise. Talk to someone (a disaster counselor if one is available). But don’t allow
yourself to ruminate about what happened. Get back to work within a few minutes.
Take part in regular “debriefing” sessions offered by the disaster counselors at the site
of the disaster. This is especially important before you return home to your “regular”
When You Return Home
Give yourself a few days to make the transition. Help your family understand you
need some time to yourself before beginning a full schedule of normal activities.
Be tolerant of what others at home want to share. What has happened to them is
important to them, just as your experiences were important to you.
Anticipate mood swings and strong emotional reactions. Expect that your family’s
responses to you may not be what you expected or think you “deserve.” Be aware that
you may have unexpected reactions to sounds, sights, or people that remind you of
experiences at the disaster site. Prepare others for this and be realistic yourself.
Disaster Manual (Draft) – p. 102
Appendix D: Further Resources
Aptekar, L. (1994). Environmental disasters in global perspective. New York: G.K. Hall.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1998). Practice parameters for
the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with posttraumatic stress
disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 37:10
Danieli, Y., Rodley, N.S., & Weisaeth, L. (Editors). (1996). International responses to
traumatic stress. Amityville, NY: Baywood.
Enarson, E., & Morrow, B.H. (Editors) (1996). The gendered terrain of disaster through
women’s eyes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company.
Everly, G.S., & Lating, J.M. (Editors). (1995). Psychotraumatology: Key papers and core
concepts on post traumatic stress. New York and London: Routledge.
Foa, E.B., & Meadows, E.A. (1997). Psychosocial treatments for posttraumatic stress
disorder: A critical review. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 48, 449-480.
Foeken, I. (1999). Confusing realities and lessons learned in wartime: Supporting
women’s projects in the former Yugoslavia. Women and Therapy 22 (1), 91-106.
Hodgkinson, P.E., & Stewart, M. (1998). Coping with catastrophe: A handbook of postdisaster psychosocial aftercare (2nd Edition). London: Routledge.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (annual). World
Disaster Report. London: Oxford University Press.
Ladrido-Ignacio, L., & Perlas, A.P. (1995). From victims to survivors: Psychosocial
intervention in disaster management in the Philippines. International Journal of Mental
Health, 24, 3-51.
Lima, B.R., & Gittelman, M. (Eds.). (1990). Coping with Disasters: The Mental Health
Component. International Journal of Mental Health, 19, No. 1 and 2 (whole issue)
Marsella, A.J., Friedman, M.J., Gerrity, E.T., & Scurfield, R.M. (1996). Ethnocultural
aspects of posttraumatic stress disorder. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological
Disaster Manual (Draft) – p. 103
Middleton, N., & O’Keefe, P. (1998). Disaster and development: The politics of
humanitarian aid. London: Pluto Press.
Miller, K. Manual for “Planning to Grow” Program. Program for Prevention Research,
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, U.S.A. (on program carried out with children
in Guatemala)
Raphael, B. (1986) When disaster strikes: How individuals and communities cope with
catastrophe. New York: Basic Books.
Roberts, A.R. (Editor). (1990). Crisis intervention handbook. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
World Health Organization, (1996). Mental health of Refugees.
Walker, B. (Ed.) (1995). Women and Emergencies. Oxford: Oxfam.
Young, B.H., Ford, J.D., Ruzek, J.I., Friedman, M.J., & Gusman, F.D. (1998). Disaster
mental health services: A guidebook for clinicians and administrators. White River
Junction, VT: National Center for PTSD. (Also available on-line at ).
David Baldwin’s Trauma Pages,
National Center for PTSD, http://www.dartmouth.ed/dms/ptsd
Disaster Mental Health Institute,
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS).
National Hazard Center,
PILOTS database,
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 17, Chemin des
Crets, PO Box 372, 1211 Geneva 19, Switzerland. Tel: (41)(22) 730-4222. Internet:
UNICEF, 3 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017, USA. Internet
World Health Organization the Division of Mental Health, World Health Organization,
CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. Internet
Disaster Manual (Draft) – p. 104
John H. Ehrenreich, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist. He is Professor of Psychology and
Director of the Center for Psychology and Society at the State University of New York,
College at Old Westbury, NY. He is the author or co-author of The American Health
Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics (1971), The Cultural Crisis of Modern Medicine
(1978), and The Altruistic Imagination: A History of Social Work and Social Policy in the
United States (1985) as well as numerous articles on personality theory and on
psychological assessment in professional journals.
Sharon McQuaide, M.S.W., Ph.D. is a clinical social worker. She was formerly Chief
Clinical Social Worker and Director of Social Work Education in the Outpatient Mental
Health Clinic at Danbury (Connecticut) Hospital. She has taught at Fordham University
Graduate School of Social Service and Smith College School for Social Work. She has
written extensively in professional journals on issues of assessment and
psychotherapeutic treatment.
Mental Health Workers Without Borders is an international, not-for-profit, nongovernmental network of activist psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental
health nurses, counselors, and other mental health workers. Members share a common
interest in issues related to psychosocial assistance for natural and man-made disaster, the
rights of people with mental illnesses, and the needs of developing countries in providing
treatment and psychosocial rehabilitation for their citizens with mental illness. MHWWB
does not provide direct services as an organization. It encourages family- and
community-based, psychosocial approaches to mental health problems, respectful of
cultural variation, drawing on local resources and healing traditions, and emphasizing
community revitalization and empowerment as well as individual treatment. For more
information about Mental Health Workers Without Borders, contact Martin Gittelman,
100 W. 94th Street, New York, NY 10025 (Telephone: 212-663-0131)
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