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Southern United States Tornadoes: Mental Health Resources to Support Community Recovery

Catastrophic disasters, such as late-season severe weather and tornado outbreaks that affected portions of the Southern United States across the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky, cause suffering and death, as well as extreme disruption and distress for communities. Actions that promote the five essential elements of Psychological First Aid (safety, calming, connectedness, efficacy, and hope) can reduce distress and improve functioning. Below are brief and easy-to-read education fact sheets with recommended actions to protect the mental health and well-being of individuals and communities impacted by the tornadoes.


Helping Communities After Disasters

How Families Can Help Children

How Schools Can Help Students



First Responders, Emergency Workers & Volunteers and Exposure to Human Remains

Supporting Those with Pre-Existing Mental Health Conditions

Maintaining the Well-Being of Healthcare Providers



Grief Leadership in the Wake of Tragedies

Leadership in Disasters & Lessons Learned

Risk and Crisis Communication for Leaders

Workplace and Organization Management After Disaster



Curriculum Recommendations for Disaster Behavioral Health


Evacuation Centers and Behavioral Health Considerations
Common Responses to Disaster
Grief: Understanding and Managing
Vulnerable Populations
Health Risk and Crisis Communication


Evacuation centers provide shelter and facilitate connecting to resources for people displaced by a disaster. Evacuation center personnel can further protect mental health by keeping children with primary caregivers, creating “school like” activities that involve routine for kids (obtain volunteer “teachers” and create “activity centers”), and accommodating pets when possible. In addition, creating “communities” which encourage formal and informal support and connection among residents. It is important to help those in significant distress with one-on-one interactions. This is because retelling of distressing stories in great detail by highly distressed individuals can unnecessarily increase distress in others around them. Creating and maintaining connections with healthcare support systems is important to address inevitable acute (lost medications, active illnesses, etc) and chronic (insulin for diabetes, dialysis for kidney disease, etc) health concerns that arise and, when unaddressed, often diminish health and compound distress.


Common responses immediately after disasters include distress reactions (insomnia, irritability, loss of perception of safety, social isolation, blaming and scapegoating) and health risk behaviors (increased use of alcohol and tobacco, over-dedication to tasks, and reduced self-care). For supervisors, leaders, family members, and 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 developing mental disorders. Normalizing the reactions and offering guidance about what to expect with symptoms over time, as well as when and where to get assistance if needed, helps people feel calm and increases self-reliance. The following resource(s) address this topic in further detail:

FACT SHEET: Helping Communities After Disasters


Grief is a near universal experience for those impacted by disasters. In the immediate aftermath, traumatic death of family, friends, and neighbors causes profound grief, which may be difficult to experience as individuals focus on basic needs to survive. Feelings of loss result from damage to homes, loss of cherished possessions (such as pictures, keepsakes and other items which comprise our lives), displacement from homes and familiar surroundings, and disrupted life routines. Community leaders, those leading disaster management efforts, and healthcare providers can help by proactively and respectfully inquiring about, acknowledging, and then allowing individuals to process grief. Grief support also involves addressing feelings of loss, mourning those losses, and helping people deal with fears about the future. Anxiety about the future is best managed through “problem solving” (supporting people in connecting with practical help when available). Be sensitive to the need for rituals, such as memorial and funerals. To support expressions of grief, allow for healing, which ultimately strengthens 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


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. The distractions that parents experience can further affect children during this time. Women who are pregnant or postpartum have increased risk during these physiologic states. Being cognitively and mobility impaired as well as depending on a system of care may increase risk for elderly and those with pre-existing mental illness. 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: Supporting Those with Pre-Existing Mental Health Conditions

FACT SHEET: How Families Can Help Children

FACT SHEET: How Schools Can Help Students

FACT SHEET: First Responders, Emergency Workers & Volunteers and Exposure to Human Remains

FACT SHEET: Maintaining the Well-Being of Healthcare Providers


Health risk and crisis communication is a critical behavioral health intervention following a community disaster. For those leading disaster management efforts, understanding what to say and what not to say, when and how to say it are important elements. Basic principles include being clear and succinct, stating what is known and unknown, indicating when you do not know the answer, committing to following up at a specific time and then doing so, and avoid misleading or efforts to be overly reassuring as these erode trust. 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


Additional detailed resources can further knowledge about effective preparedness, response, and recovery measures. Some are brief while others are more detailed. Reading more detailed resources, such as books about disasters, during an actual disaster response is not likely to happen. However, as the initial response slows a bit, these offer much more in depth treatments of key topics to consider, which may 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:

Additional free fact sheet resources at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress

TN Statewide Crisis Phone Line

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Disaster Psychiatry; What Psychiatrists Need to Know (T Ng)

Textbook of Disaster Psychiatry, 2nd Edition

Disaster Psychiatry (F Stoddard)

Resiliency in the Face of Disaster and Terrorism (J Napoli)

Integrating Emergency Management and Disaster Behavioral Health

Disaster Psychiatry Handbook

Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster Online Training (Disaster Psychiatry Canada)


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