The Importance of Mental Health Treatment Following Natural and Human-Made Disasters

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Natural and human-made disasters can have intense and often traumatic impacts on both individuals and communities before, during, and after the occurrence. Although federal and state disaster response entities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Guard will be vital to recovery following one of these events, these organizations might not fully comprehend the place of social workers.

The physical damages associated with tornados, gas pipe explosions, hurricanes, and other disasters will be the first to get the attention of the public and government entities, but the emotional and mental distress caused is equally important. Healing can be immensely difficult in times of extreme devastation, and social workers are often the best-positioned parties to help communities and the individuals heal.

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the ways in which natural and human-made disasters impact individuals and communities, and the role social workers play in the assisting with that fallout.

Example: Hurricane Katrina

In terms of natural disasters in the United States, Hurricane Katrina was one of the starker examples of a devastating event that had immense psychological impacts on a very large population. A wide-reaching report that brought together authors and researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Princeton University, Harvard University, and Washington State University investigated some of the ways in which Hurricane Katrina impacted mental health among parents in New Orleans.

According to the authors, who published the report in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, about 50 percent of New Orleans residents surveyed showed clear signs of PTSD following Hurricane Katrina. Since post-traumatic stress disorder is far more common among residents of an area that has been completely destroyed, investigators identified this as a primary threat in the wake of natural disasters.

To fully understand the situation, keep in mind the following core symptoms of PTSD, as well as the challenges involved in treating those suffering from this disorder:

  • The ADAA notes that extreme events might not immediately cause PTSD, but rather have lingering impacts that the sufferer does not notice for years
  • Symptoms of PTSD range from communication problems and issues with problem solving, along with trust and interpersonal relationship challenges that were not previously apparent
  • The type of traumatic event involved will often dictate the specific symptoms, and the best approaches to therapy and treatment

In the study on Hurricane Katrina, the authors pointed out that an estimated 1,000 individuals lost their lives from the event and about 1.5 million residents were displaced in the fallout. Adding to the trauma, there was another event – Hurricane Rita – that occurred one month after, further impacting those who were still living in the area.

In terms of the recorded adversity experienced among those affected by the storms, the authors revealed the following findings:

  • Roughly 52 percent of one cross section studied experienced lingering physical and mental wellness problems more than 15 months after the event
  • Chronic health problems were seen in 34 percent of another group
  • Of all categories of subjects studied, those who were caring for children had the highest risk of depression and anxiety, as well as PTSD
  • One year after the event, almost 14 percent of subjects developed serious, lasting mental illness compared to 6.9 percent before Hurricane Katrina struck
  • The rate of surveyed individuals believed to be suffering from PTSD dropped only slightly to 47.7 percent one year after compared to slightly more than 50 percent in the immediate wake of the storm

Two of the most important factors in terms of treatment and reconciliation were economic status and access to social services and support. In virtually all major natural events that destroy significant areas of a community, individuals with lower economic statuses and/or less access to social services will be the most at risk of experiencing PTSD and other adverse mental conditions immediately following the event and a year or more after.

Social services professionals will be the proverbial boots on the ground to try to help families avoid these types of lasting mental illnesses and hardship.

Access to care

A report from several psychologists and other mental health experts published in Disaster Med Public Health Prep revealed that natural disasters which occur in rural areas might be the most dangerous of all when it comes to mental wellness. Because these areas have far fewer social and general health care services, they will tend to take longer to heal and recover.

The study outlined how health care disparities will be intense in the wake of a major natural or man-made event, and the numbers show just how valuable greater access to assistance and support can be. The general conclusions were strongly aligned with what is to be expected: When a disaster strikes a rural area, the fact that these communities do not have strong access to mental and physical health care will make the situation far worse, and impacts last longer.

Coping is the biggest concern of all. An article published in The New York Times from author Nadine Brozan cited the comments of Dr. Mary Lystad who worked with the Reagan administration to develop proactive and responsive strategies to help individuals following the declaration of a disaster area.

“There are six typical initial responses: fear, numbness and shock, confusion and difficulty in making decisions, desire for information, seeking help for oneself and family, and helpfulness to others,” she said in the piece.

Interestingly, she pointed out that many disasters will be immediately followed by a sort of lightheartedness within the community, but it will not take long for the shock to fade and significant trauma to set in. This is one of the reasons why access to care is such a major component of disaster response, as swift, orderly, and strategic steps must be taken almost immediately to ensure that those impacted are on the right track toward recovery.

Again, this further strengthens the concept that social services professionals are critical in any recovery situation, regardless of whether it was caused by a natural or manmade disaster.

Thorough breakdown

Individuals who are either thinking about becoming social workers, are currently getting their degree, or are already professionals will need to understand some of the patterns and processes involved in response. Here are some useful facts and matters of note to consider:

  • Timelines: The National Association of Social Workers breaks the responsibilities of professionals down into four segments based on timing. This begins with the preemptive measures taken before the event takes place, during the harshest moments, the immediate fallout, and the long-term aspects of recovery and healing.
  • Wide-reaching impacts: The Social Work Policy Institute stated that events such as the Oklahoma City Bombing and World Trade Center terrorist attacks had mental health impacts thousands of miles from where they occurred. This presents unique challenges to social workers as a result of what the institute calls “vicarious stress,” which are highly common in violent, cataclysmic events caused by unnatural forces.
  • Methodologies of assistance: The National Institutes of Health published guidance regarding social work methodologies in the wake of a disaster. These can include the creation of policy structures to support efforts of social work entities, integration of the plans into the disaster recovery framework and community-based intervention that leverages strong ties in the area while trying to bring it back to a state of normalcy.

As is the case with virtually any social work activities, communities and individuals will be reliant upon these professionals to mentally heal from the trauma of major natural and manmade events. This means that certain social workers need to have a strong background in psychology education and community development, as well as specialization in disaster response and PTSD treatment.

“It takes a village”

A report from Raquel Cohen published in the World Psychiatric Association Journal argued that social workers are certainly going to play the most central role in supporting communities after a disaster, but they are not the only ones. Rather, other types of caregivers within the community and paraprofessional workers – especially in rural communities – will also be critical to a full, lasting recovery.

In this regard, there are many concerns such as burnout among caregivers, paraprofessionals, private sector individuals, and social workers themselves. So, social workers who are capable of empowering and supporting the community, effectively creating a system and structure that is somewhat self-sustaining, might be the most successful in their efforts to support the individuals therein.

As such, in addition to the wide range of skills, knowledge, and passions that social workers must possess when they are involved in these situations, they need to be exceptional communicators, leaders, and orchestrators. By creatively and intelligently developing a strategy that brings the community together rather than separating individuals in accordance with their stress levels or trauma, the inhabitants will tend to be better-positioned to heal in a lasting fashion.

All of the above research shows why those interested in social work need to complete thorough, extensive and top-notch education during their undergraduate and post-graduate years. Choosing the right school for this will also have a positive impact on the careers and success rates of social workers down the line.