Disaster response psychology needs to change

Photo by Flickr user flyingjournals. Click for source.I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about how disaster response mental health services are often based on the erroneous assumption that everyone needs ‘treatment’ and often rely on single-session counselling sessions which may do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the article has been given a rather misleading headline (‘Minds traumatised by disaster heal themselves without therapy’) which suggests that mental health services are not needed. This is not the case and this is not what the article says.

What it does say is that the common idea of disaster response is that everyone affected by the tragedy will need help from mental health professionals when only a minority will.

It also says that aid agencies often use single-session counselling sessions which have been found to raise the risk of long-term mental health problems. This stems from a understandable desire to ‘do something’ but this motivation is not enough to actually help.

Disaster, war, violence and conflict, raise the number of mental health problems in the affected population. The appropriate response is to build or enhance high-quality, long-term, culturally relevant mental health services – not parachuting in counsellors to do single counselling sessions.

Link to article on disaster response psychology in The Observer.

5 thoughts on “Disaster response psychology needs to change”

  1. It isn’t that the one-time treatment exists, it is in how they go about executing the process that is troubling. They do more of a triage session to determine if you need further treatment. However, it is done too soon. There is little calming time to get your bearings back before they bombard you (gently) with questions about your childhood. I received that one-time counseling after being sexually assaulted in the military. It was too soon – a few hours after & continued through the week. There was very little time to myself – well meaning friends & family crowded me & wouldn’t leave me alone. It got to be too much & I did have a mental break down. I think I would have been fine had they left me alone. It led to being institutionalized for months. THE worst thing they could have ever done. You know what they say about good intentions – yes I wanted them all to go there because they were clueless about how to help me.

  2. Interesting. Tom Harrison, the renowned British Anthropologist and one of the founders of the Mass Observation project recorded the experience of Blitz in wartime Britain and subsequently wrote the excellent “Living through the Blitz.”

    In spite of the pre-war pessimism of Britain’s elite there was very little evidence of psychological disturbance in the aftermath of aerial bombing. Indeed, many became habituated and experienced to the air raids and were able to continue at a good level of psychological adjustment. Where civil disorder and personal breakdown did occur was in areas that suffered sudden and intense bombardment without much or any prior experience of air raids. Coventry in November 1940 was the classic example. The crisis was, however, short lived and the population quickly got back on their feet.

    What Harrison did identify was a need for material support services – the provision of food canteens, emergency accommodation, medical assistance.

    The psychology industry will probably do anything to big up a situation and accrete more status to itself. Sometimes they are just a bloody nuisance.

  3. Reblogged this on AlmostHumor By BlotterMonkey and commented:
    This reminds me of the story I was told by elders as a child ( I don’t remember word for word & haven’t found it on the internet yet) but it went something like this ‘short version’:
    There was a preacher who had a heart of gold who was traveling to save the world. He had never seen the beach until one day he found himself at the shore…
    Later they found him at the beach in a panic surrounded with dead fish lying everywhere on the shore. When they asked him what was happening he frantically exclaimed he had found all these fish drowning in the ocean. He keeps pulling them out of the water & they are still alive gasping for air when he places them safely out of the water so they can breath. But every-time he is just too late because they all keep dying.. He says help me, help me save these fish from drowning! there must be thousands of them.
    I think you get the idea & I would love the parable if anyone knows it.
    Sometimes the best intentions can be the most harmful instead of helpful.
    – BlotterMonkey (RW)

  4. A close family member of mine specialises in a specific single-session trauma counselling technique called TIR. She has become quite upset with the way in which trauma counselling is becomming the ‘in’ thing to do after every disaster great or small.

    Firstly, yes, many people that suffer trauma do not develop PTSD and they have no need of such therapy. Pathologising healthy and normal reactions to traumatic experiences cheapens the diagnosis of real cases.

    And secondly, these therapy sessions are absolutely not supposed to be done in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic event.

    Unfortunately the hype surrounding PTSD and single-session therapy techniques to address it devalues the real healing that these sessions do have for the people that desperately need it.

  5. Can we use your article about disaster response psychology in our magazine? Our publication, the Peer Bulletin, is our non-profit organizations way of letting subscribers who are involved in peer support and coaching know about the latest trends and issues. I’m sure they’d appreciate your perspective, and we’d include the appropriate citation to the original source as well as a brief biography of you as the author.

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