Catastrophic natural disasters, such as the West Coast wildfires, cause extreme disruption and can be distressful for individuals, families and communities, particularly because it is occurring while communities are already dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 (resources can be found HERE ). For resources to help learn about or develop learning material on the behavioral health effects of disasters, see the new Curriculum Recommendations for Disaster Behavioral Health. Below are brief, action-oriented fact sheets as well as additional information to help individuals, communities, and organizations during the West Coast wildfires.
Immediately below are fact sheets that address important general principles to support individuals and communities after disasters, such as wildfires. Below the fact sheets are additional important topics in response and recovery from extreme natural disasters.
FACT SHEET: Helping Communities After Disasters
Grief is a near universal experience for those directly impacted by an extreme natural disaster, such as wildfires, and further compounded by existing and ongoing losses related to global COVID-19 pandemic. In the immediate aftermath of wildfires, loss of home, possessions (such as pictures, keepsakes and other items which comprise our lives), and life routine cause feelings of grief. Loss of control and life routine, as well as familiar people and places often compound feelings of grief. Affected individuals often experience a decreased sense of safety and heightened feelings of fear and threat. Community leaders, disaster managers, and healthcare providers can help those affected by gently inquiring about, acknowledging and then allowing individuals to process grief. Grief support also involves addressing feelings of loss, mourning losses, and acknowledging fears about the future. Anxiety about the future is best managed through “problem solving” (supporting people in connecting with practical help when available). Being sensitive to the need for rituals, such as memorial and funerals, to support expressions of grief allow for healing, which ultimately strengthen communities. The following resource(s) address this topic in further detail:
FACT SHEET: Grief Leadership in the Wake of Tragedies
FACT SHEET: Leadership in Disasters & Lessons Learned
Evacuation centers and shelter facilities are often needed to house those displaced after wildfires. The current pandemic is complicating efforts to provide housing for those who have evacuated and possibly lost their homes. Those working in any form of evacuation center or shelter can support mental health and wellbeing of community members through interventions consistent with the principles of Psychological First Aid (PFA), which involves enhancing a sense of safety, calming, self- and community-efficacy (reliance), social connectedness, and hope or optimism. Interventions at evacuation centers which promote PFA principles include: reducing exposure to media, optimizing sleep, keeping children with primary caregivers, facilitating processes that create a sense of normalcy, and accommodating pets when possible. In addition, creating “communities” help encourage formal and informal support. It is important to help those in significant distress through one-on-one interactions as having residents retell their distressing stories in great detail may unnecessarily increase distress in others around them. Creating and maintaining connections with healthcare support systems is important to address acute (lost medications, active illnesses, etc.) and chronic (insulin for diabetes, dialysis for kidney disease, etc.) health concerns that will inevitably arise.
Common responses to disasters include distress reactions (insomnia, irritability, loss of safety, social isolation, blaming and scapegoating) and health risk behaviors (increased use of alcohol and tobacco, reduced attention to health and family needs). For healthcare personnel, being alert to these reactions and behaviors, promptly identifying them, and providing interventions can reduce distress and improve functioning and may decrease the likelihood of ultimately developing mental disorders. The following resource(s) address this topic in further detail:
FACT SHEET: Helping Communities After Disasters
Vulnerable populations may be at increased risk for adverse mental health effects after a disaster and warrant unique considerations. Children have developmental limitations in their understanding and ability to respond and are also impacted by the distractions that typically occur for parents who are responding to a crisis. Women who are pregnant or postpartum have increased risk during these physiologic states. Cognitive and mobility impairment as well as dependence on system of care can make it more difficult to evacuate or receive care when infrastructure is damaged or healthcare systems become unavailable. First responders and public health emergency workers (including volunteers) may be both responder and victim and have increased risk for exposure to death, dying, human remains, and considerable suffering. Marginalized population (low socioeconomic status, migrants and refugees, LGBTQ persons, racial and ethnic minorities) may have limited access to resources, previous negative experiences using government services, and fear retaliation or reprisals by government and related organizations, ultimately leading to disparities in access and utilization of critical post-disaster resources. Community-based interventions can help address the unique needs of these (and other) populations by addressing vulnerabilities and reducing barriers to care. The following resource(s) address this topic in further detail:
FACT SHEET: How Families Can Help Children
FACT SHEET: How Schools Can Help Students
Health risk and crisis communication is a critical behavioral health intervention following a community disaster. Public health messaging is critical to shape health behaviors. Basic principles include using clear and consistent messages that are culturally and developmentally tailored for a given community; avoid misleading statements or efforts to be overly reassuring as these erode trust; minimize the use of medical jargon; and ensure messages are delivered by trusted messengers. Effective communication following a disaster can reduce distress and enhance well-being for affected communities. The following resource(s) address this topic in further detail:
FACT SHEET: Risk and Crisis Communication for Leaders
Workplace management following a disaster is an important part of restoring community functioning. In addition to financial support, the workplace often provides a sense of meaning and social connectedness. Though workplaces may be understaffed during disasters, and working under altered circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, overworking remaining personnel leads to diminished functioning and demoralization. Effective support for personnel in the workplace can enhance functioning for both the individuals and the organization. The following resource(s) address this topic in further detail:
Additional detailed resources can further knowledge about effective preparedness, response, and recovery measures. Some are brief while others are more detailed. While reading more detailed resources, such as books about disasters, during an actual disaster response is not likely to happen, they are much more in depth treatments of key topics that may be helpful as the initial response slows a bit to assist with immediate response and recovery and enhance preparedness for future events. Links to additional websites, fact sheets, articles, and books can be found below: