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Topics Discussed in this Video:

  • Types of Disasters
  • Common Disaster Response
  • Supported Early Intervention Principles
  • Psychological First Aid
  • Negative Coping
  • Mental Health Referral


Dr. Kami Gallus explores common challenges and responses that communities and individuals face after disasters, and describes how individuals can help others promote safety, functioning, and action as they work towards recovery.



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Understanding Disasters

A disaster is an unexpected event so disruptive it causes physical as well as mental and emotional distress that overwhelms a community’s normal ability to respond. Disasters come in many forms, ranging from man-made disasters, such as terrorist attacks and transportation accidents, to natural disasters like tornados and wildfires. The effects of a disaster ripple across a wide range of people, from those in communities directly affected by the event to those who hear about distressing details from a distance. A broad range of emotions including grief, fear, anger, and other responses are commonly experienced in the aftermath of a disaster.


Disaster Response

Community and individual resilience and mutual support is often brought forward in the aftermath of a disaster. As people pull together and offer support, over time a majority will fully recover from the setbacks brought on by a disaster without professional mental health intervention. Despite the common approach, more emphasis is often placed on physically and financially preparing farms for potential disasters and recovery than on emotionally and psychologically preparing the farmers . Taking early steps to emotionally stabilize and support individuals impacted by disaster can significantly aid in recovery and can be a first step in promoting safety for individuals who would benefit from the specialized help of a mental health professional.


Psychological First Aid

First aid for physical injury is primarily meant to stabilize people who are injured until professional help is available. Psychological first aid is similar designed to help promote safety and functioning of community members in the aftermath of disaster. The first principle is to refrain from trying to force people to talk about the details of the disaster or traumatic experience, it often isn’t necessary and may actually make things harder for the person you are working to help. This principle, along with the following series of six steps designed to enhance safety, promote functioning, and take action are at the core of psychological first aid.


1: Safeguard

The first step in administering psychological first aid after a disaster is to look out for the immediate physical safety of those who affected. Quickly remove people from ongoing physical danger and insulate them from immediate reminders of the disaster.


2: Sustain

The next step is to assure the people recovering from the disaster have their basic needs met, including food, water, clothing, shelter, and medical attention.


3: Comfort

After ensuring immediate safety, the next phase of psychological first aid focuses on establishing healthy functioning. This begins by offering comfort, speaking calmly, listening carefully and respectfully, and being patient and sensitive. At this step it is also important to be watching for signs that an individual needs additional stabilization. Be on the lookout for people who seem disoriented or don’t respond when spoken to, appear inconsolable or show signs of strong emotional reactions, and people who display physical symptoms like vomiting or loss of bowel control. In these cases, additional help in the emotional and psychological recovery will likely be required. In the meantime, you can take steps to help the individual become more present and stable. Things you can do to help someone feel more present include deep, slow breathing, helping them name five things in their environment that they can see, hear, and feel, and talking about what parts of the situation are under control and hopeful.


4: Connect

As people become safe and begin feeling comfort after a disaster, getting them connected to social support will help further improve their emotional wellbeing and prevent unhelpful rumination and isolation. The most important connections are close friends and family, but people can also benefit from other sources of support such as clergy, pets, and other community members.


5: Educate

With safety and healthy functioning established you can start assisting those affected by the disaster to take action. Offering practical information is important at this stage. Practical information may include getting in contact with housing or financial resources, clergy members, general information about the effects of the disaster, and information about stress and coping.


6: Empower

The final step of phycological first aid is to empower people to get back to daily life. Encouraging people to take time for relaxing, engaging, and self-care activities can help people get back to fulfilling routines after a disaster.


On the Watch for Negative Coping

Disasters can overwhelm any person or communities’ recourses. While psychological first aid can sustain people to full recovery you may also need to watch for people who could use additional support. Some things to watch out for include isolation, aggressive behavior, extreme reaction to reminders of the disaster or trauma, and expressions of interest in or thoughts about self-harm or suicide. In these cases, gently inquiring after the person’s wellbeing, without asking them to discuss the details of the disaster or trauma, and pointing them towards additional mental health and community resources may make all the difference in their recovery.



  • Brymer, M., Jacobs, A., Layne, C., Pynoos, R., Ruzek, J., Steinberg, A., Vernberg, E., & Watson, P, (2006). Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Guide, 2nd Edition. National Child Traumatic Stress Network and National Center for PTSD, Available on: and
  • Sadri, A.M., Ukkusuri, S.V., Lee, S. et al. (2018). The role of social capital, personal networks, and emergency responders in post-disaster recovery and resilience: a study of rural communities in Indiana. Natural Hazards 90, 1377–1406 (2018).
  • McCabe, O. L., Everly, G. S., Jr, Brown, L. M., Wendelboe, A. M., Abd Hamid, N. H., Tallchief, V. L., & Links, J. M. (2014). Psychological first aid: a consensus-derived, empirically supported, competency-based training model. American Journal of Public Health, 104(4), 621–628.
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