Managing emergencies in general practice

Part C – Mental health in emergencies

Introduction

Last revised: 01 Jun 2017

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.

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  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].
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