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Phases of Disaster & Collective Trauma: Mental Health & Recovery

Mental Health Disaster Response and Recovery for Collective Trauma

None of us really know what it looks like to survive and thrive beyond a global pandemic. Thankfully, past government funding for research about disaster response and collective trauma has produced some resources we can adapt, so we don’t have to start at square one in figuring out how to care for ourselves, support others, and care for our communities.

Based on that work, we can expect some emotional tumbling in the weeks and months to come. Rather than responding with fear, can we take the opportunity to make a plan for recovery? Research shows that for better long-term recovery, mental health services should begin immediately after a major disaster, and that the help offered should be sensitive to both the stories of those affected and the cultural issues at play. 

If we take the time to consider now how we can plan to give ourselves extraordinary care and how we can check-in more with the people we care about in the coming months can help support ourselves and others into the recovery phase.


Did you know the are FREE manuals for best-practices for doing mental health and other person-to-person care in the aftermath of a disaster? I’ve posted a link to two of my favorites below

Collective Trauma

As I thought about this graphic in the context of disaster, I realized that it extends to many single-event collective traumas – like how a family responds to a sudden death in the family, how a small town might respond to the closing of a major employer, or how an identity group might respond to a single-event hate crime.

NOTE: for the black community and many other marginalized groups, trauma (both collective trauma and individually-experienced trauma) is *ongoing.* Although it is not the topic of this post, the impact of this chronic stress is profound and requires our attention. Check out @thewe_collective for good educational content in this area.

This graph (adapted from an open-source resource published by the US Department of Health and Human Services) can be downloaded below. Contact me for publishing and print-use inquiries.

Key Concepts of Disaster Mental Health according to the DHHS:

  • No one who sees and/or experiences a disaster is untouched by it.
  • There are two types of disaster trauma: individual and community.
  • Most people pull together and function during and after a disaster, but their effectiveness is diminished.
  • Disaster stress and grief reactions are normal responses to an abnormal situation.
  • Many emotional reactions of disaster survivors stem from problems of living brought about by the disaster.
  • Disaster relief assistance may be confusing to disaster survivors.
  • They may experience frustration, anger, and feelings of helplessness related to Federal, State, and non-profit agencies’ disaster assistance programs.
  • Most people do not see themselves as needing mental health services following a disaster and will not seek such services.
  • Survivors may reject disaster assistance of all types.
  • Disaster mental health assistance is often more practical than psychological in nature.
  • Disaster mental health services must be uniquely tailored to the communities they serve.
  • Mental health workers need to set aside traditional methods, avoid the use of mental health labels, and use an active outreach approach to intervene successfully in disaster.
  • Survivors respond to active, genuine interest, and concern.
  • Interventions must be appropriate to the phase of disaster.
  • Social support systems are crucial to recovery

Image Description for Screen Readers:

Image is a graph titled “Emotional experience in disasters (and other collective traumas.”

On the y axis (vertical side) is written “emotional lows and emotional highs.”

On the x axis (horizontal) is written “time, event, one year mark.” 

In pre-disaster phase, warning and impact occur.

There is a build up to a heroic phase, post-impact, followed by a peak in the honeymoon phase (community cohesion). 

After this, there is a dip that is labeled “disillusionment (chronic stress),” where people are trying to understand the event and aftermath. 

The graph slowly rises again, with a dip at the  one year mark for anniversary reactions, followed by coming to terms as there is a reconstruction (a new beginning.)

The graph is  adapted by Lindsay Braman from Zunin & Meyers/ samhsa.gov no. 90-538.

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