Don't Overlook the Mental Health of Emergency Responders, Expert Says

The emotional impact of a disaster can take a toll on the psychological health of first responders and other health care workers. According to one expert, organizations that oversee these workers need to incorporate a disaster mental health component into their emergency preparedness programs.

"The role of behavioral health is one that has been marginalized, almost skirted," said Susan Hamilton, senior associate for disaster health with the American Red Cross, speaking at the Second Annual Emergency Preparedness Conference in Washington, D.C., from Oct.19-20. "Workers should be able to deal with the emotional toll of disaster work."

In the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, emergency responders worked hard to aid victims who were caught in the web of the disaster. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, many hospital employees not only had to worry about the safety of their patients but also were consumed with worry about their own safety and the safety of their families.

Because these two events were unanticipated, first responders and other health care workers were not prepared to deal with the psychological impact afterward, Hamilton said.

"Many of these workers live in a pervasive culture of fear," she said. "But in order for them to overcome this fear, it is important for them to prepare for the physical and psychological impact disaster events can bring about."

Signs of that impact include denial, compassion fatigue and burnout. To prevent emergency responders and health care workers from bearing this psychological burden after a disaster, Hamilton suggests hospitals and other health care organizations incorporate a disaster mental health component into their emergency preparedness programs.

Also, health care workers and first responders should be prepared to analyze the unique aspects of disaster situations and should be given sufficient training to be able to the overcome physical and psychological challenges that come about, Hamilton asserted.

American Red Cross Offers Courses that Can Help

The American Red Cross currently offers two courses - Foundations of Disaster Mental Health and Psychological First Aid - which are designed to help licensed mental health professionals provide for and respond to the psychological needs of people across the continuum of disaster preparedness, response and recovery, according to Hamilton.

One of the courses, Psychological First Aid, offers the following behavioral guidelines for workers and institutions involved in emergency response:

  • Create a compassionate environment for disaster survivors and workers.
  • Assess what a person might need at a particular time.
  • Provide immediate support.
  • Help others cope.

"It is so easy to get into the idea that everything is so frightening," Hamilton said. "But it is so important to be prepared so when something does happen, it doesn't seem so scary."

She added: "As in the words of the great author Howard Ruff, 'it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark.'"

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