We Need to Focus on Mental Health After Natural Disasters

Image: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a national mental health crisis. A CDC survey found that 40% of respondents are struggling with mental health, as CNN explained, “both related to the coronavirus pandemic itself and the measures put in place to contain it, including physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.”

And now, according to the findings of a project by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and Columbia Journalism Investigations, in collaboration with 10 local and regional outlets, the strain of the pandemic is being compounded by the mental and emotional strain of the natural disasters that have affected the nation this summer.

Why This Matters: Mental trauma after a natural disaster isn’t a new occurrence, in fact, according to a Rice University study, 50% of Houston-area residents have experienced severe emotional distress since Hurricane Harvey devasted parts of the city in 2017. As CPI and Columbia Journalism found, “mental health experts worry the psychological toll from these increasingly common cataclysms — with a pandemic now overlaid on top — could be unprecedented.”

In the U.S. we faced nearly 40 natural disaster events costing at least a billion dollars each in the past decade, more than any period previously recorded. We must find a way to ensure that mental health support is an ongoing resource for communities after a disaster. Post-traumatic stress, especially in child victims, can stunt development and lead to cascading psychological issues.

According to the World Health Organization, “mental health is crucial to the overall social and economic recovery of individuals, societies, and countries after emergencies.”

Recognizing Mental Health: As the American Academy of Pediatrics explained: in addition to their profound effects on the life and infrastructure of communities, disasters produce a massive collective stress exceeding the ability of the affected population to cope with the physical, emotional, and financial burdens.

  • Disaster episodes affect millions of people and exert a collective social suffering that requires a monumental effort by individuals, communities, societies, and the world community to overcome.
  • Classically, relief efforts focus on the physical consequences of disasters by providing immediate medical attention and addressing health and environmental services (water supply, sewage disposal, and shelter).
  • But only in recent years have the short and long-term consequences on mental health and psychosocial well being of individuals, families and communities been taken into consideration.

In the United States, our primary program for supporting mental health after a natural disaster is the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  • The program distributes an average of $24 million, or 1% of FEMA’s annual total relief fund, to send mental health workers into disaster-stricken communities and provide other support.

But the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that this help usually lasts about a year, even though the psychological effects can linger for many more, and reaches only a fraction of survivors.

We can do a lot better than this. In fact, as the WHO explained, many countries have capitalized on emergency situations to build better mental health systems after crises.


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