Americans Who Survive Disasters Should Receive Mental Health First Aid


Americans who survive a natural or man-made disaster face a multitude of external public health threats, ranging from contaminated waters during a flood to airborne carbon monoxide emitted by back up generators in areas that lose power. But one of the most insidious health risks they face could actually be rooted in their psyches. That’s why researchers are now recommending that disaster survivors should be given timely mental health first aid by emergency response teams.

Thanks to global climate change, an increasing number of extreme weather incidents — such as fires, floods, and earthquakes — are striking America. And in a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers found that one in three people who survive those disasters is at risk for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One in four are at risk for depression.


Emergency medical response units understandably focus on physical health and bodily injuries during the aftermath of a natural disaster or act of terrorism. But because mental conditions like PTSD and depression can take several weeks to manifest themselves, the study authors say it’s important to do a preliminary mental health evaluation, too. That can significantly lower the chances that a manageable condition caused by the stress of surviving a disaster will fester into a much more serious problem that’s expensive to treat, such as persistent thoughts of suicide or debilitating depression.

“Mental injuries are prevalent and require a similar system for identifying and treating these individuals, just as you would those with physical injuries,” wrote senior study author and professor of psychiatry Carol North.

The authors recommended several mental health first aid techniques, including psychological first aid, debriefing, and crisis counseling. Psychological first aid can include listening to a survivor’s story to help them calm down, reconnecting the survivor with their families or loved ones to give them comfort and stability, and informing them of the types of therapy and psychiatric resources that may be available to them.

Researchers also pointed out that providing mental health care to Americans in a disaster zone could have the additional benefit of identifying people who suffered from an illness before the disaster occurred. Less than 40 percent of Americans with any sort of mental illness receive treatment for their conditions. During Hurricane Katrina, 40 percent of survivors who had to rely on shelters were treated for an underlying mental illness while 24 percent were treated for an illness caused by the storm, according to Bloomberg.