Role of Psychologists in Responding to Emergencies and Disasters

Whenever there is a disaster or emergency of any magnitude, whether in Canada or abroad, psychologists can be and often are mobilized to help.

What Can Psychologists Do?

In addition to offering help and support to address one’s basic personal needs such as water, blankets or food, psychologists can also offer crucial emotional support.

Psychologists are uniquely trained to help people cope with the stressors they may be facing and the various emotions they may be feeling. They are able to help survivors, loved ones of victims, and first-responders understand that the various emotions they are feeling are common.

Psychologists do not offer therapy on site at a disaster or emergency. Instead, they offer various other forms of support, either on site or afterwards, including:

  • Providing emotional support
    • Listening to people’s concerns on a variety of issues
    • Acknowledging the range of emotions people may experience following the disaster
    • Helping people find and maintain a hopeful outlook
  • Providing assistance with the recovery process
    • Helping people recognize and build upon their own internal resources to begin the recovery process
    • Helping people manage their temporary living conditions, conflicts, and any other life issues that may be co-occurring with the disaster
    • Helping children to use positive coping strategies, connect with and help others, and re-establish familiar routines
  • Providing information
    • Providing information about available resources for current needs such as clothing, medical care, food, etc.
    • Providing information on how and where to seek longer-term support and facilitating referrals
    • Informing people about the range of emotions they may experience following the disaster
  • Facilitating connections with friends, family members and others (who may or may not have been part of the disaster)
  • Advocating for the needs of particular individuals or families
  • Providing training and consultation
    • Provide training and consultation to first-responders on responding to traumatic events and effective interventions
    • Provide consultation to humanitarian organizations
    • Provide consultation on the evaluation of resources and interventions

Responding as a Psychologist during International Emergencies and Disasters

During emergencies and disasters that occur abroad, there are roles for psychologists in Canada as well as in the country of the emergency or disaster.

In Canada, psychologists can:

  • Support people from the affected area, people whose loved ones have been affected, and international relief workers who have returned home from the affected area.
  • Inform themselves of international psychosocial interventions and disseminate information about international guidelines and standards in emergency responding.
  • Provide training and consultation on responding to traumatic events and effective interventions that is based in knowledge about cultural, spiritual, linguistic and national differences; political and societal conditions from the broader context of survivors’ situations; the local delivery of care; and local responses to the affected area and population.
  • Obtain the necessary training in disaster mental health.

Internationally, psychologists can:

  • Offer to consult with or provide training to international colleagues.
  • Offer to provide information to and consult with recognized humanitarian organizations.
  • Offer their expertise and assistance in conducting effective assessment of psychological needs, resources and evaluation of interventions.
  • Develop collaborative research relationships with mental health professionals in the affected areas.

Psychologists should work through established humanitarian organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross and the Salvation Army, to ensure that assistance is being coordinated through the necessary agencies and incorporated into the relief infrastructure. It is important that psychologists recognize the vast cultural and world-view differences between Canada and the affected areas when providing psychological resources and consultation on recovery processes and psychosocial interventions.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which is formed by the heads of a broad range of UN and non-UN humanitarian organizations, has produced guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. The guidelines stipulate that mental health professionals who are not affiliated with an organization should not travel to disaster affected regions unless they meet the following criteria:

  1. They have previously worked in emergency settings
  2. They have previously worked outside their own socio-cultural setting
  3. They have basic competence in some of the interventions covered in the guidelines
  4. They have an understanding of either community psychology or public health principles
  5. They have a written invitation from a nation or established international organization to work in the country
  6. They are invited to work as part of an organization that is likely to maintain a sustained community presence in the emergency area
  7. They do not focus their work on implementing interventions (e.g. clinical work) but rather “provide support to programmes on a general level, including the transfer of skills to local staff, so that interventions and supports are implemented by local staff” (IASC, 2007, pp 74-75).