Natural Disasters - Mental Health

Tips by Theme or Topic

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  1. Emotional response to natural disasters
    1. Most people are impacted emotionally by natural disasters. If this distress lasts for weeks or months, support and treatment may be needed.
  2. Increased risk for long-term impacts
    1. Certain individuals (like those with pre-existing mental health conditions and children) are at higher risk for distress and long-term mental health impacts.
  3. Depict constructive responses through storytelling
    1. Use storytelling to help viewers understand the warning signs of distress, the importance of preparedness, and the role of community support in the wake of a disaster.   

Storytelling Tips

Portray a Range of Mental Health Experiences
  • Illustrate the impact of disasters on mental health and highlight the warning signs of more concerning levels of distress. 
  • While most people will bounce back with the help of a strong support network and coping skills, some might require additional support after experiencing a disaster. 
Diversify Representation
  • Tell stories about underrepresented individuals so viewers can see the broader mental health impact of natural disasters. 
  • Media sometimes show natural disaster stories through the lens of individuals, families, and communities with higher socioeconomic status and access to resources. But those most impacted by natural disasters are those with less means, resources, and access to services.This includes people who are unable to escape a natural disaster due to lack of physical access or financial means. 
Show Conversations About Mental Health and Help-Seeking
  • Show people recovering from a natural disaster discussing their feelings and reaching out for support if needed. 
  • In a situation where everyone in a community is impacted by a life-altering event, people who are struggling may be reluctant to speak up — especially if there are others who appear to be impacted in more severe ways. 
Spotlight Support from Friends and Family Members
  • Show friends, family, and community members coming together to support one another as a reminder that there is hope and connection even in the most devastating tragedies. 
  • Community and support networks are critical in the aftermath of a disaster. In fact, disasters can sometimes strengthen community connectedness in the longer term. 
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
  • Integrate the perspectives of mental health experts, public health professionals, or emergency response teams to better depict how mental health services can be deployed in the aftermath of different types of disasters. 
  • Public health and whole-community approaches may be particularly effective for identifying and ensuring care for at-risk individuals after disasters.
Highlight the Power of Coping Skills and Self-Care
  • Try to show effective coping and self-care skills that require limited resources or external support.
  • When access to resources is limited after a major disaster, the ability for individuals and families to support their own mental health becomes critical. 
  • Effective coping skills in this context might include communicating about difficult feelings, staying active, disconnecting from news coverage about the disaster, being grateful despite the loss and damages, and limiting use of drugs and alcohol that can increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. 
Represent the Complex Causes of Mental Health Challenges
  • Illustrate the risk factors for certain groups, like people with existing mental health conditions and children. They are more likely to experience distress after a disaster. 
  • Illustrating these risk factors through your narrative can increase awareness about individuals who may need more support if an unexpected disaster occurs. 
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
  • Avoid graphic scenes of natural disasters. While these scenes may increase the dramatic impact of your story, they can also increase the potential negative impact of the viewing experience on people who have lived through disasters or have high levels of anxiety about them. 
  • Audiences can gain empathy for disaster survivors and responders without exposure to graphic images, sights, and sounds. Prompting someone touched by a disaster to recount graphic memories outside of professional counseling and treatment can overwhelm the person, produce new distress symptoms, and impede recovery. 
Provide Resources and Calls to Action
  • Include tailored resources that can help viewers who are coping with a natural disaster. You can find appropriate resources using our directory.
  • Preparedness on an individual and community level can protect mental health during future natural disasters. You can also use your story as an opportunity to encourage people to take steps toward this preparedness.

Snapshot

A disaster is any unexpected crisis or emergency that threatens property, lives, livelihood, physical, or mental health. Disasters can be human-caused, like violence and car accidents, or natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, and extreme, prolonged drought. 

Natural disasters can dramatically impact people and communities on multiple levels, including economic, social, physical health, and mental health. Mental health concerns can occur before, during, or after a natural disaster. 

Most people who experience a natural disaster will be impacted by it, but the vast majority will be able to bounce back fairly quickly, especially if they have a strong support network and coping skills. 

Anyone can experience symptoms of distress throughout a disaster, but if this distress lasts weeks or months, then an individual might need support and treatment to cope. People with existing mental health conditions and children are at particular risk of experiencing concerning levels of distress after a natural disaster. 

Emergency preparedness, access to services, understanding of warning signs of mental health problems, strong support networks, and healthy coping skills can all help mitigate the long-term mental health impact of these disasters.

Facts & Stats

Research suggests that individuals with mental health conditions may be less prepared than others for disasters. It’s important to note that Americans in general are not well prepared for disasters.  
Studies have found that mood and anxiety disorders are risk factors for post-disaster distress , but schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders are not. 
Children and youth are more likely than adults to be severely impaired after a disaster, most commonly with PTSD or its symptoms. 
Globally, there were 7,348 natural disaster events from 2000 to 2019, with 1.23 million lives lost and 4.2 billion people affected, resulting in approximately $2.97 trillion in global economic losses. This is a sharp increase over the previous 20-year period.  
Researchers suggest that climate change is a primary factor in the increased prevalence and impact of natural disasters.  
 

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more in part 6