Managing emergencies in general practice

Part C – Mental health in emergencies

Psychological preparation for an emergency

Last revised: 13 Dec 2019

While some disasters occur seasonally, such as floods and bushfires, other disasters, such as earthquakes, are less predictable. While governments and disaster response agencies often start to prepare for disasters in anticipation of the disaster season, less thought may be given to what people can do to psychologically prepare for a disaster.

Being both physically and psychologically prepared for a disaster is of paramount importance. Understanding what people can do to psychologically prepare for a disaster and what they can do to cope during and after a disaster can make a significant difference to those adversely affected. It is common and natural for people to experience depression and various problems with anxiety in a disaster.9 However, having a good understanding of what to expect during and after a disaster can assist in decreasing people’s anxiety levels. People who are psychologically prepared for a disaster are generally more confident and able to make effective decisions regarding their emergency management plans.10

It is good practice to consider what activities practice staff can undertake to ensure that that they are psychologically prepared for an emergency.

The Australian Red Cross, in collaboration with the Australian Psychological Society, has developed a framework outlining the appropriate steps to take to ensure psychological preparedness for an emergency (refer to Table 1).

 Psychological preparation for a disaster

Table 1.

Psychological preparation for a disaster

  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. [Accessed 28 March 2017].
  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. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
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