Facets to disaster preparedness

So far for 2017, the world has seen a plethora of disasters such as the floods in South Sudan, Myanmar and Guinea; earthquakes in Mexico, Philippines and China; drought in Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria; hurricanes in British Virgin Islands and the Caribbean; dengue outbreaks in Pakistan and Sri Lanka; landslide and mudslides in Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone; bombings in France and Spain; trucks used as weapons of murder in Stockholm and Germany and fires in India and UK.

All of which have devastated many communities and profoundly affected large numbers of people. Yet, in many instances the psychological and mental health responses within disaster preparedness strategies are inadequate.

When sudden and unexpected tragedies occur, the immediate humanitarian reaction is to focus on the physical needs of those affected. While that is important, it must not be forgotten that disasters also significantly impact psychological well-being, and therefore mental health requires equal attention.

The shock and disbelief that such a devastating situation has occurred, and the hopes and wishes that it would somehow just be an unpleasant nightmare that will eventually disappear; the feelings of powerlessness, the guilt and frustration of not being able to prevent the situation or help others; and the enduring fears that something equally disastrous could happen again, and in some circumstances the intuitive need to apportion blame, and show hostility towards others, are just some of the feelings that often emerge.

In addition to which, on any given day there are many people struggling with emotional and mental health challenges such as depression, bipolar disorder or addiction. The World Health Organisation estimates that “one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives”. So, when disasters strike it is not only the trauma of the situation that they will have to contend with.

Anyone who has been in close proximity to a disaster will tell you that often the shock of the situation shakes you to the core and makes you aware of their own vulnerability. It also presents a greater perspective on coping abilities and resilience, and provides an opportunity for a truer display of humanity and community comradery.

In the wake of a disaster it is great to see that despite negative/positive emotions and cognitions, people will mobilise themselves and come together to deal with whatever crisis has befallen their community. That new engagements and interactions will be made, thereby strengthening and fostering community cohesion. But at the heart of it all, is a reminder that there are individuals and families struggling to come to terms with their individual losses of loved ones, possessions, memories, home and community support networks.

There will be groups and organisations suddenly working outside of their area of expertise, navigating and fitting into changing environments, and that the members of those groups are also individuals experiencing their losses and emotional discomforts. The wider community – locally, nationally and internationally will also be affected in some shape or form, whether it is because they have relatives, friends, or kindred connections.

Disasters can have far-reaching effects, and while there are so many unknowns that suddenly emerge when tragedy strikes, making it difficult to prepare for every eventuality, in the immediate aftermath of any tragedy there will always be panic and chaos. But, mental and emotional well-being and community healing should not to be left to chance, instead, a well thought-out, co-ordinated psychological response ought to be one of the facets of effective disaster preparedness.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK-based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. She writes a weekly column for Newsday. Contact her at yr@efficacyeva.com

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