Coping After Trauma and Disaster: Mental Health Tips and Resources from APA
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 29, 2021 – As heat waves, hurricanes and fires are impacting millions across the country, the American Psychiatric Association offers some tips and resources on coping with the mental health impacts of aftermath of disaster-related trauma.
Disasters and other traumatic events can have tremendous psychological impacts on those who are affected directly and indirectly. Following a disaster, most will ultimately do well and return to their previous level of functioning. However, many people will initially experience distressing thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms and may engage in risky behaviors to help cope. Common reactions in adults after a disaster may include trouble sleeping; feeling sad, depressed, irritable or numb; having trouble concentrating; having headaches, stomachaches or other body pains; or misusing alcohol or other substances to cope.
“As we face more frequent and more intense climate-change related disasters, we cannot overlook the emotional and mental health impacts, especially among the most vulnerable,” said APA President Vivian Pender, M.D. “Everyone is impacted, but low-income communities and communities of color can face the brunt of it and may face significant challenges in accessing resources to help recover. Traumatic events may also be especially difficult for those already living with mental health disorders.”
Individuals and organizations can take actions to minimize the potential mental and emotional effects of trauma. Here are some ways to mitigate and minimize the potential psychological impacts after a crisis has passed.
- Keep informed with relevant, credible information about the situation, but avoid overexposure to repeated coverage of the event.
- Learn what local resources are available to aid those affected by the tragedy and be prepared to share this information.
- Feelings of anxiety anger or sadness are common following a traumatic event. Talking with friends, family or colleagues who likely are experiencing the same feelings can help.
- If feelings of anxiety and depression continue, or if these feelings become overwhelming, seek the help of a mental health professional.
“While many are resilient in the face of disaster, it’s important to pay attention to our ongoing mental states, and if necessary, seek mental health treatment,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “These are extraordinary times, and we are dealing with historic changes in weather patterns. If you’re feeling the psychological impacts, you are not alone.”
Helping Children Cope
Traumatic events are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, many children feel frightened and confused. Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient. Parents, teachers and caring adults can help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner.
In addition to having the physical and emotional reactions similar to adults, very young children may become clingy, fearful or return to behaviors such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking; school aged kids may get into fights, socially isolate, or have trouble with schoolwork; and teens may use alcohol, tobacco, drugs or prescription medications to try to cope.
- Keep open dialogues with them regarding their fears of danger and the traumatic event. Let them know that in time, it will pass.
- Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises. Don’t minimize the danger but talk about the ability to cope with tragedy and get through the ordeal.
- Limit exposure to television and social media content about the disaster; repeated exposure to frightening or intense images increase distress.
- Maintain routines at home and school as much as possible.
- Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate and help them find ways to express themselves.
- Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises.
- Watch for physical symptoms, including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains.
- If problems such as sleep disturbances, recurring fears about death, or aggression persist, seek help from your child's pediatrician, family physician or school counselor.
- Information on coping after a disaster or trauma.
- The APA Blog includes several posts about Coping After Tragedy and Coping with Past Trauma and Women, Disasters and Resilience.
- See more information on coping with mental illnesses.
American Psychiatric Association
The American Psychiatric Association, founded in 1844, is the oldest medical association in the country. The APA is also the largest psychiatric association in the world with more than 37,400 physician members specializing in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and research of mental illnesses. APA’s vision is to ensure access to quality psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. For more information please visit www.psychiatry.org.