Federally declared disasters have increased by 40% over the last 15 years, according to the Clinical Social Work Journal, and internationally, those numbers are higher. Over just the last two decades, natural disasters have doubled.
In the past, the term “disaster” was poorly defined, leading to emergency response plans that were a one-size-fits-all solution to multifaceted problems. This approach left survivors with fewer options for critical care, especially in the area of mental health.
The National Center for PTSD recently redefined disaster as “a sudden event that has the potential to terrify, horrify, or engender substantial losses for many people simultaneously.” It went on to further define disasters based on type, differentiating between natural and man-made disasters. If more widely accepted, this definition opens the door to opportunities for mental health care in these urgent situations, giving social workers a vital role in relief, recovery, and community resiliency.
Responses in Disaster Relief Social Work
Social workers can offer a variety of mental health services in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Traditional psychotherapy performed by therapists is known for its long-term approach involving session work and trust building, allowing patients to share their trauma narratives. However, when social workers are called up for active disaster relief, their critical and immediate intervention skills are far more necessary for psychological triage. Among them are:
- Psychological first aid (PFA): PFA assists those in crisis in the aftermath of disaster. It relieves initial distress in an effort to promote short- and long-term coping. This sometimes includes crisis intervention and counseling.
- Family care: Family social workers help families during crisis. They aid survivors in locating the services they need to overcome post-disaster challenges and repair their lives.
- Mental health media communications: This field provides voices and vital points of view for under-represented or disadvantaged populations.
- Resilient community capacity building: This includes creating response plans for various groups.
Above all, the pledge to “do no harm” is the first aspect of every skill.
Assistance During Disaster
Disaster relief programs typically consider the short-term needs of survivors in order to identify the best allocation of resources and promote beneficial coping in the aftermath of tragedy. Social workers assist in these programs in a number of ways, including:
- Case management: Social workers locate appropriate resources for clients, making sure they receive the services they most require.
- Case finding: Case finding involves providing survivors with information about the programs available to them. Many are unaware that such services are available or fear stigmatization for participating in them.
- Outreach: Social workers performing outreach increase program locations in order to allow services to be more accessible.
- Advocacy: Using connections within various relief organizations, social workers advocate on behalf of clients to qualify them for additional services.
- Brokering: When acting as a broker, social workers link client systems to the resources they need, fulfilling client needs throughout a multiplicity of programs.
Ultimately, all these methods allow social workers to disseminate information, refer clients to services, and assist them in qualifying for resources in disasters.
Disaster Relief Social Work in Practice
In the U.S., the American Red Cross and the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program have provided almost half of all social workers participating in disaster relief programs. Depending on the type, duration, and severity of disaster, the challenges and requirements of social work change. When preparing ahead of an impending calamity, social workers may be identifying and organizing supplies, assisting with area and hospital evacuations, or even determining which patients can or should be moved.
During an actual emergency, the needs of the afflicted tend to take precedence over one’s own needs. Moment-to-moment changes in operational requirements contribute to the notion that social workers must remain flexible. They must be able to go where they are needed when they are needed there. The following are some real-world examples of social workers in the midst of disaster.
The residents of Beaumont, Texas, were witness to devastation on a massive scale. In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Harvey descended on Texas and Louisiana, and with it came ruined homes and wrecked lives.
In the end, the storm caused over $125 billion in damage and took 107 lives. The end of the storm was nowhere near the end of the damage. Long-term psychological trauma is a reality for many survivors, especially children. According to a recent survey in the aftermath of a hurricane, nearly 3.4% of respondents were found to have suicidal thoughts. The assessment, response, and counseling of suicidal behaviors were critical concerns that social workers on the ground were able to address.
In September 2017, the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, was deployed to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The crew included social workers and mental health providers for inpatient and outpatient mental health services. These providers developed protocols to educate the ship’s staff in treating psychiatric patients in addition to treating patients on board.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES
The Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative was established in Sonoma County after the devastating Tubbs fire to offer survivors tools for dealing with trauma. In the wake of the fires, The Guardian reported that many social workers were funded by grants from FEMA, which allowed them to connect with nearly 70,000 people in Sonoma County alone. These social workers were able to identify and refer thousands to much-needed mental health services.
Further study of the impact of disasters on the mental health of survivors is critical to the practice of disaster relief social work. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has emphasized that children are especially vulnerable in disaster conditions, as they take their emotional and behavioral cues from adults.
Anxiety and startle responses, typical symptoms in children that have survived hurricanes, require therapeutic activities to help them cope in healthy ways. According to NASP, other disasters can prompt separate trauma responses. Tornadoes can cause survivor’s guilt due to their suddenness, whereas wildfires, given their advance warning, can cause anxiety. Negative effects stem from displacement, property destruction, and the concerns associated with biological threats to one’s health.