How to Help Disaster Survivors? Best Practice Might Not Be What You Think

With many psychologically damaging experiences, the sooner help is given, the better. For example, kids who are bullied or those who experience abuse respond much better over the long haul if they receive therapy early on to deal with their experiences. But for survivors of disaster, implementing certain types of psychological intervention right away (and requiring that intervention) may not be the most beneficial. Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is a common response to disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and, most recently, the mine rescue in Chile. But according to the Association for Psychological Science, immediate, one-time CISD sessions aren’t all that helpful and in some cases may increase psychological trauma.

So what is a psychologically healthy approach? Making sure that people have the support, skills, and resources they need to recover at their own pace. In many cases, this means access to psychotherapy, especially with a therapist experienced in helping trauma and disaster survivors. Survivors may be ready to talk at different stages, some sooner than others. So it’s helpful to equip them early on with the skills to deal with their thoughts and feelings as they arise. Programs such as Australia’s “Skills for Psychological Recovery” aim at teaching specific mental and psychological problem solving skills. These skills help survivors recognize what they’re going through, calm themselves down, and limit negative thought patterns. They’re also taught that it’s okay to lean on others: psychotherapists for mental health support and friends and family for emotional support.

That emotional support is a key element to the puzzle. Just as arming individuals with skills to address their own thoughts is helpful, so is arming communities with the skills to understand and talk about mental health. With support from the outside, personal tools to address emotions as they arise, and access to therapy when it’s needed, disaster survivors have a much better chance of working through the experience and landing healthy on the other side.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sally


    October 18th, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    Sometimes it seems in these situations that immediately following the disaster there is help in the form of volunteers, food, and money and then after a while we forget about everything that is happened and move on with our lives. But we have to remember that the victims cannot do that. they are still dealing with the trauma and the devastation and need for us to be there longer than many of us are able or willing to commit to. So maybe there needs to be more of an effort to spread out the relief effort, and to make people aware that just because there may be no more stories about the region on a daily basis on the evening news, the need for aid and comfort are still great months and in some cases even years after the event.

  • rudy


    October 18th, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    I have found that sometimes just the presence of another person is enough for such persons to feel better.they would have given up on life and may feel like nobody is bothered about them but when somebody does they really feel great.



    October 19th, 2010 at 6:25 AM

    I always had a thought-whenever there is a natural calamity and they evacuate people from an area,they provide them with temporary housing,basic necessities like food and water amongst other things,but we hardly see or hear of them being given inspirational talks or maybe a collective movement to cheer them up or something like know,its just feels better when you are in trouble and someone puts their arm around you and says “don’t worry,its going to be fine”.

  • bGt


    October 19th, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    I have been a volunteer before and have gone to a few places with minor tragedies.And you know what?People who have been at the receiving end of such tragedies often just need a hug and a shoulder to cry on.

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