After some of the largest bushfires in Australian history burned across the continent for seven months, it only took weeks after the flames were extinguished for patches of green to begin emerging from the scorched land.
“In these horrible burnt out areas, there were signs of life with green pieces of flora and fauna coming through,” said Erin Smith, an associate professor in Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences. “But is it as easy for regrowth and that sort of recovery to happen for people, particularly from a mental health perspective?”
Though the physical effects of natural disasters may fade within weeks or months, the psychological toll these events take on individuals and communities can linger for years. There are strategies that individuals and disaster-prone communities can use to build resilience ahead of traumatic events and combat the mental health impacts of natural disasters when they strike.
What Are the Psychological Effects of Natural Disasters?
Nearly everyone in a community hit by a natural disaster will experience some sort of emotional reaction to the event.
Disasters not only affect the psychological health of individuals but can also damage the collective psyche of communities by disrupting the norms, values and rituals that provide the basis for their resilience.
“Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event like this bushfire crisis comes through and damages the ties that bind our community together,” Smith said during a webinar on the mental health impact of the bushfires hosted by the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine. “It’s those social bonds, that connectedness that is so important for resilience and so important ultimately for the way that people will recover after disasters.”
There are emotional highs and lows that correspond to different phases of a disaster and recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The range of emotions individuals experience related to a disaster may include feelings of uncertainty, panic, optimism, abandonment and grief.
Mental and Emotional Phases of a Disaster
The pre-disaster phase can be as short as minutes if there is no warning of a disaster, or it can last for months if there is a known threat. Feelings of fear and uncertainty define the pre-disaster phase, and people in this phase may feel a sense of vulnerability and lack of control to protect themselves and their families.
The impact phase is typically the shortest of the six disaster phases. People in this phase can experience a range of intense emotions corresponding to the type of disaster, including shock, panic, confusion and disbelief. After the initial shock, individuals may feel a strong sense of self-preservation or family protection.
The heroic phase occurs after a disaster strikes and is often associated with altruism. Community members may engage in rescue activities driven by adrenaline, though their risk assessment may be impaired in this phase. The heroic phase often passes quickly.
Emotions climb to a high in the honeymoon phase, which usually lasts for a few weeks after a disaster.This phase is characterized by community bonding and optimism and provides an opportunity for assistance to affected groups.
The disillusionment phase can last for months or years after a disaster, and it can be extended by trigger events such as the anniversary of a disaster.There may be an increased need for relief services, but those affected by disasters realize the limits of relief available during the disillusionment phase. This phase is characterized by negative mental health outcomes, including feeling discouraged, stress, exhaustion, substance use and feelings of abandonment.
Reconstruction typically begins a year after a disaster occurs and may last for years.This phase is associated with a sense of recovery as stakeholders take responsibility for rebuilding their lives, adjust to a “new normal” and continue to grieve.
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Phases of Disaster,” https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/recovering-disasters/phases-disaster
Created by PublicHealthDegrees.org.
What mental and emotional complications do disaster survivors experience?
Common emotional reactions and mental health effects of disasters may include:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Traumatic incident stress
Changes to interpersonal relationships
Changes in thought and behavior patterns
Intense or unpredictable feelings
Difficulty making decisions
Who is most at risk for mental health complications after disasters?
Children: Children’s vulnerability to stress reactions after disasters depends on their age, cognitive level, exposure to a disaster and their parents’ or caregivers’ status after the event. They may experience PTSD, anxiety, depression, grief, behavioral problems and academic difficulties.
First responders and recovery workers: Workers who respond to disasters and aid in recovery are more likely to develop complications including substance use disorders, depression and PTSD.
Risk factors for stress reactions after disasters also include the severity of a person’s exposure to a disaster, gender, family, age, bereavement, physical injuries, family separation, preexisting individual stressors, socioeconomic status and low social support.
Smith recounted the experience in Australia, where heavy smoke hung in the air for weeks in major cities across the country during the 2019–2020 fires.
“You don’t need to be directly in communities that have been directly decimated and impacted, but you can be in the regions where the smoke filters to and still have that mental health impact from seeing it,” Smith said.
How do natural disasters affect children’s mental health?
Children are more prone to mental health complications after a natural disaster because they understand less about the situation, feel less control over the situation and have less experience coping with difficult events, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For instance, many children living in Australian cities had never experienced anything like the bushfires before.
“All of a sudden they’re waking up, they can smell the smoke, they can see it, and they’re thinking that the city’s on fire,” Smith said. “So, we had that additional layer of vulnerability that we really had to address.”