Disaster Psychology

Weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and East Texas. Today, Hurricane Irma marches up the Florida coast after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean.  When the storm passes, media attention will soon shift to recovery efforts.  First responders will undertake search and rescue operations.  More slowly, infrastructure—including housing, transportation needs, and communications—will be rebuilt.  But for many people, recovery requires more than just material needs.  Rebuilding is not possible without attending to the psychosocial needs of disaster-affected individuals, families, and communities.

Hurricane Irma; NASA

Disasters have an enormous impact on mental health and psychosocial well-being. Velasquez et al, writing in the APA Handbook of Community Psychology, explain how the alteration of life plans, weakening of social networks, loss of social support, and fragmentation of relationships between individuals and larger institutions combine with the fear and anxiety produced by the disaster itself to cause significant strain on mental health.  The toll can be especially heavy for those already living in poverty.  Patricia Watson and Jessica Hamblen, in the APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology, emphasize that disasters and disaster recovery cannot be understood in isolation from preexisting living conditions such as absence of information, lack of adequate risk management, inequality, and weak institutions and social organization.  As a prominent NIH study showed, the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused the incidence of serious mental illness to double, and nearly half of the subjects—all of whom were low-income parents of young children—exhibited symptoms of probable PTSD.

Although vulnerable people have a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and social capacities to cope with and recover from disaster, mental health remains a critically important but widely under-recognized aspect of disaster recovery. Fortunately, attention is increasing, thanks in part to the emergence of the field of disaster psychology.  According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, disaster psychology is a specialized domain of training, research, and service provision applied to individuals, communities, and nations exposed to a disaster. A key aim of practitioners in this area is to reduce initial distress, and foster short and long-term adaptive functioning following a disaster.  Public awareness is growing, too, thanks to the efforts of journalists, as well as organizations like Kaiser Permanente, which recently donated $500,000 to Mental Health America of Greater Houston, which helps provide mental health and emotional support to victims of Hurricane Harvey in east Texas.

Individuals can help as well. Mental health professionals can volunteer now with the Red Cross to help individuals in affected areas.  To donate to MHA of Greater Houston, click here.  Florida mental health organizations will be very active post-Irma; local MHA chapters and many other relief organizations will need resources in the weeks and months ahead, as the millions affected by these disasters begin the long road to recovery.



Vandenbos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Velasquez, T., Rivera-Holguin, M., and Morote, R. In M.A. Bond, I. Serrano-Garcia, & C.B. Keys (Eds-in-Chief), Shinn, M. (Assoc. Ed.). (2017). APA handbook of community psychology (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Watson, P. & Hamblen, J. (2017). Assisting individuals and communities after natural disasters and community traumas. In S.N. Gold (Ed.-in-Chief). (2017). APA handbook of trauma psychology (Vol. 1).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.



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