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Managing emergencies in general practice

Part C – Mental health in emergencies


Last revised: 13 Dec 2019

Disasters affect individuals and communities in a range of ways and can cause major disruptions to people’s lives, both physically and emotionally. Most individuals and communities draw on their diverse strengths during disasters and are resilient; however, the impact of disasters can be felt by individuals and their communities over a long period of time.

Individuals may be affected by emergencies by the loss of family or friends, their home, workplace, school, property, community, business, health or access to services. Those affected by disasters may report feelings of grief, fear and anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, numbness or depression. Some people’s belief systems are impacted and they may experience a sense of loss of control over their life and future.

People exposed to extreme stressors such as disasters may be at increased risk of physical, mental and social health problems.7 There is evidence to suggest that those affected by disasters may be at increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, increased substance use, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complicated grief.8 The majority of people recover from disasters without long-term mental health sequelae but may benefit from some basic and timely support during and/or immediately after a disaster.

Given that individuals affected by emergencies have an increased risk of developing social and mental health issues, it is essential they receive appropriate services in a timely manner. It is equally important that special consideration be given to the mental health and wellbeing of those responding to disasters and emergencies.

It is important to note that state and territory emergency management plans also encompass arrangements for mental health services in the event of a disaster or emergency. Given this, the provision of coordinated psychosocial support and adequate mental health care is a critical component of disaster planning and response.

  1. Commonwealth of Australia. Attorney-General’s Department. Disaster health – Handbook 1. Canberra: Australian Emergency Management Institute, 2011.
  2. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Geneva: IFRC, 2013. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  3. Australian Red Cross and Australian Psychological Society. Psychological first aid: An Australian guide to supporting people affected by disaster. Carlton, Vic: Australian Red Cross, 2013. Australian_Guide.pdf [Accessed 21 March 2017].
  4. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities. The economic cost of the social impact of natural disasters. Sydney: Deloitte Access Economics, 2016. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Patient experiences in Australia: Summary of findings, 2015–16. Belconnen, ACT: ABS, 2016. [Accessed 23 March 2017].
  6. Commonwealth of Australia. Department of Health and Ageing. Review of Australia’s health sector response to pandemic (H1N1) 2009: Lessons identified. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing, 2011. [Accessed 29 March 2017].
  7. NSW Health and University of Western Sydney. Disaster Mental Health Manual 2012. University of Western Sydney: Disaster Response and Resilience Research Group, 2012. Documents/disaster-mental-health-manual.pdf [Accessed 28 March 2017].
  8. Neria Y, Galea S, Norris F. Mental health and disasters. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  9. Bryant R. The impact of natural disasters on mental health. InPsych April 2009. impact_disasters [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  10. Australian Psychological Society. Psychological preparation for natural disasters. Melbourne: APS, 2017. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  11. Kessler RC, Galea S, Gruber MJ, Sampson NA, Ursano RJ, Wessely S. Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Mol Psychiatry 2008;(4):374–84.
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