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Responding to disaster

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Relief personnel now have research to guide them in helping victims.

By Joanne Caye

When disasters occur, like the recent tsunami in South Asia, people try to imagine what it must be like to experience such an event and such loss.

Dealing with issues the average person might find unimaginable, responders must understand how to help disaster survivors.

Fortunately, these medical personnel, planners, social workers and mental-health personnel now have a body of research and knowledge to help them decide what to do and who may be most affected by the disaster.

The research addresses the physical and emotional behaviors disaster survivors may experience, and the effect it may have on them personally.

During and immediately after a disaster, people are ecstatic to be alive and to find family members who have survived. But as time goes by and they realize what they have lost, how their life has permanently changed and how little aid is available, survivors may begin to experience anger and resentment.

Research has found many survivors may experience feelings of fear, loss or anger at any time, and not be able to control them. Children may regress to an earlier age, have trouble sleeping, become clingy and whiny, or withdraw and appear inconsolable.

Most people regain some sense of normalcy after a few weeks, find what assistance they can and go on with their lives.

But some get stuck, permanently, at the point of the disaster. These are the people social workers and mental health professionals must look for, and engage in the helping process in some way, so they can regain some footing in their lives.

Most at risk are survivors who have lost family members, their means of living, and all material possessions. They lack adequate emotional or structural supports. Both adults and children may find that prior beliefs and spiritual practices are no longer helpful.  The infrastructure of their communities may be destroyed.

Research has shown these individuals need special assistance from disaster responders beyond the basic necessities of life.

Research also suggests the reality of disaster survivors can be transposed on relief workers. Faced with tremendous loss and inability to repair the damage, responders can feel the same hopelessness as the victims.

Research suggests ongoing monitoring of reactions, use of stress reduction techniques, and consultation with colleagues to help keep relief workers balanced during this very difficult work.

Research is proving helpful on a global level as the world experiences and responds to both natural and man-made disasters.


Joanne Caye is clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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