3.3. Mental health and psychosocial support

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atencion salud mentalMental health and psychosocial support for victims of natural disasters is increasingly growing importance. In addition to the consequences commonly witnessed during disaster events — devastation, destruction of infrastructure, environmental deterioration and the lack of basic services such as health care, drinking water and food — they also affect lives and cause disintegration in families and communities.

  • Complex emergencies and disaster situations are accompanied by increased psychological suffering: grief and fear, and psychiatric morbidity and other social problems. It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of the affected population (depending on the magnitude of the event and other factors) manifest some psychological problems.
  • Furthermore, it has been shown that after the emergency itself, the mental health problems of survivors require prolonged period of care, as they face the task of rebuilding their lives.
  • Health workers, search and rescue groups, relief personnel, and volunteers who are also exposed, suffer the effects not only of the disaster itself, but of the enormous emotional burden involved in their work.

For more information on the impact of disasters on mental health of a variety of population groups, as well as guidelines for action, consult the PAHO publication on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Disaster Situations in the Caribbean. The behavior of disaster victims changes over time, and is affected by factors such as age, economic situation, mental health history, extent of loss suffered as a result of the disaster, cultural characteristics, and resilience. The following factors are also considered:

  • The nature of the event: Sudden disasters have a major emotional impact and can inhibit defensive reactions or can produce panic. The situation of refugees who are victims of violence entails its own specific needs.
  • The characteristics of victims: Children, elderly, and women, as well as the disabled and mentally ill are more vulnerable.
  • Environment and circumstance: Disasters have a greater effect on poor populations. Mental health preparedness plans must consider elements of the environment previous to, during, and after a disaster. Teams with training in mental health and stress management should be present.
    Apart from the necessary participation of mental health professionals, it is important to train health workers in basic community level interventions. Early interventions to provide individual or collective support are of very significant value.

Given the complexity of mental health issues, plans should include short- and medium-term actions, tools to evaluate affected groups, and guidelines for intervention on major psychosocial problems, as well as assessment tools on the effectiveness of interventions.

Health workers and rescue groups require preventive interventions for stress management and psychosocial support. Useful information on controlling stress is provided in a pamphlet that the International Federation of the Red Cross prepared for people whom it delegates to participate in response operations.