Sunday, May 11, 2008

Psychological Resilience and Disaster Management

In facing future scenarios that involve:

*an increase in possibility of extreme weather and storms,
*a critically transforming climate,
*a money economy disrupted and threatening collapse,
*an energy economy based on declining supplies of oil and other non-renewable fuels,
*an observable diminishment of water and food resources,
*a threat of pandemic disease occurring in an ever destabilizing social environment,
*where the medical emergency establishment is understaffed--undercapitalized, unprepared, (
see )

*the possibilities of mass migrations in the first world countries mirror the horror in Darfur…. is important that we increase individual and community resilience so that we may better function when they become a reality (whether gradual or sudden).

Many government and community organizations are recognizing the need to improve disaster management following the devastation of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. Much has been written and discussed about this need , but there is much more to be accomplished in community crisis management than preparing for natural disasters, especially as we've known them to be in the past. In future scenarios associated with climate change, peak oil, and potential economic collapse, there are increasingly complex problems to consider. Richard Heinberg, author of “Peak Everything, Waking up to the Century of Declines” has suggested we must begin to build community resilience for facing these critical changes. His "Museletter" article, “Resilient Communities: A Guide to Disaster Management” is a call to arms in which he describes ways of building resilience at a local level . Others have begun such local grassroots efforts in communities around the world and information about them can be found at Transition Culture, where additional ideas can be found.

As a mental health professional, I must add that there is a need to increase individual and community resilience on the psychological and emotional level as well as on the physical. Critical Incident Stress Management (
CISM) is an established methodology for relieving symptoms of traumatic stress encountered during critical incidents and catastrophic situations. Stress management and debriefing are designed to increase individual and group resilience to trauma for those responding to emergency situations. This training is given to both mental health professionals and volunteer responders so that they may form a team which provides debriefing to those workers on duty at the scene. The interventions performed by the CISM team allow the responders to continue functioning both during the event and throughout its recovery period. The training naturally increases personal resilience for the CISM team members in such a way that their performance is enhanced when they are on active crisis response duty.

Psychological resilience training for the public in general as a preparation for dealing with disaster (both natural and other) would be greatly beneficial in decreasing the amount of traumatic stress people feel when facing critical future scenarios. Being prepared mentally and emotionally and having an emergency plan for different types of possible critical situations makes all the difference in the ability to control irrational panic responses that would further endanger them and their communities when clear thinking and quick action are necessary for survival.

I believe in considering these possible future scenarios it would serve us well to establish centers in our communities where the populace could be educated about these potential dangers and provided with reasonable and accurate information for preparation and planning. In these centers they could receive some training in
CISM so that they are prepared to facilitate crisis management in their homes and neighborhoods. Educating people about life-changing possibilities occurring in the near future without giving them information and skills for dealing with them creates a critical level of stress and only serves to activate the natural response of psychological denial. Offering scenarios that are overwhelmingly outside their ability to control or manage tends to shut down their natural ability to seek solutions and act on them. Providing stress management tools and skills enhances their sense of personal safety and resilience.

Other survival skills could be taught in these centers. Embracing home and farm economics as well as nursing skills and practices our grandparents (great-grandparents for some of you) knew well but which have been lost in the fast pace of modern (post-modern and beyond) life, would be both beneficial and stress relieving. Having this kind of knowledge and ability is, in itself, a way of increasing resilience to critical future scenarios, be they energy depletion, pandemic, storm, or “doomer” dystopia.

I have written diaries
here and here with my thoughts and suggestions as a mental health professional. The city of Houston actually has a mental health team for responding to disasters, but I would like to see them begin a program for public preparation.