Disasters have a profound impact on behavioral health. Disaster behavioral health services are a key component of emergency response and recovery, particularly as disasters increase in frequency, severity, and duration. Survivors and responders require both immediate care and long-term recovery support. The community also needs the opportunity to heal and rebuild its resilience.
Emergency managers should work together with partner agencies and the community to plan for an effective disaster behavioral health response. The planning process engages the whole community and helps build relationships, leading to better outcomes during crisis. Agencies can codify disaster behavioral health approaches and protocols through a written framework, plan, or concept of operations.
“Recent incidents have put an even stronger spotlight on the need for disaster behavioral health,” says Jayson Kratoville, CONSTANT’s Director of Operations, who specializes in disaster behavioral health planning. “The question has always been ‘how?’ CONSTANT helps communities engage partners in building actionable plans to get the right resources to the people who need them.”
CONSTANT provides a few tips for state and local communities to strengthen their disaster behavioral health planning:
Partner with Providers: Connect with disaster behavioral health resources before disaster strikes.
Behavioral health refers to how behaviors and emotions influence individuals’ overall wellbeing and is a key factor in the way people act. Conversely, disaster behavioral health focuses on the psychological, emotional, cognitive, developmental, and social impacts of disasters on survivors and responders. Most people will experience an emotional impact that is transient when affected by a disaster. Others, however, may experience emotional instability, stress reactions, trauma, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms that can be severe and long-lasting if not addressed with a professional.
To accommodate this need and demand, it is important for communities to integrate disaster behavioral health interventions into preparedness, response, and recovery activities. This starts during “blue skies,” where emergency managers should engage behavioral health providers, forge relationships, and assess for pre-existing community factors and existing individual provider and community strengths, resources, and abilities. Having this baseline knowledge will allow emergency managers to work with providers to tailor response interventions in a way that is best suited to support individuals and communities impacted by a disaster. Providers should have pre-existing trust with the community and reflect the community’s diversity.
Communities may recognize that the demand and need for disaster behavioral health services following a disaster could overwhelm local providers and resources. This places importance on incorporating entities like the American Red Cross (ARC), local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOADs), Medical Reserve Corps (MRCs), and Faith-Based Organizations in preparedness. Non-governmental resources could potentially supplement both local behavioral health resources and personnel and those provided by State or Federal governments.
Engage the Community: Plan with community partners, especially historically marginalized and those at greater risk for negative disaster behavioral health outcomes in planning efforts.
Assessing for risk factors as well as existing individual and community strengths, resources, and abilities prior to a disaster will expose where needs are likely to arise and gaps that prevent an ability to serve the community equitably. Once these gaps are identified, a participatory planning process should be used to ensure the needs of historically marginalized populations and those at greater risk for negative behavioral health outcomes are integrated within preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. Plans crafted with the community, rather than for the community, are the most impactful and realistic.
This could mean engaging in initiatives such as:
- Convening Disaster Behavioral Health Advisory Committees to collaborate with a range of organizations and community members.
- Conducting outreach programs in various languages and cultural contexts.
- Developing partnerships with local organizations and leaders to strengthen support networks.
- Providing cultural competency training for responders and healthcare professionals.
- Identifying and establishing support systems that consider unique disaster behavioral health needs.
- Reviewing data on populations that may be more susceptible to the behavioral health impacts after a disaster.
- Advocating for prioritization of resources to community groups who are at increased risk for being impacted by behavioral health implications post-disaster.
- Bolstering disaster behavioral health volunteer response groups, such as nonprofit volunteer groups with strong connections to the community.
- Crafting accessible information in multiple formats to inform people of disaster behavioral health resources and services.
Each of these initiatives are examples of activities that play an important role in fostering an inclusive disaster behavioral health planning process.
Save a Seat at the Table: Incorporate disaster behavioral health representation in Emergency Operations Centers.
Many jurisdictions have integrated disaster behavioral health into public health and emergency management incident command structures. This looks different at various levels of government and command structures. It may involve integrating an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or Department Operations Center (DOC) position for a Behavioral Health Team Leader, Mental Health Unit Leader, DBH Incident Commander, or Mental Health Safety Officer. These positions are tasked with coordinating disaster behavioral health programming and services. Use job aids or job action sheets to outline roles and responsibilities for your community’s Disaster Behavioral Health responders within plans and procedures.
Emergency managers have the opportunity to enhance their integration of disaster behavioral health practices within existing plans. Crafting comprehensive plans that explicitly articulate and align disaster behavior health roles and responsibilities can mitigate confusion and strengthen information sharing for disasters of all types. This proactive approach ensures a better-informed disaster response and recovery, meeting the unique needs of both responders and the broader community.
CONSTANT can help with disaster behavioral health planning, psychological first aid training, and more. We’ve worked with communities across the country and all levels of government. Contact us today at email@example.com for more information on how we can help your organization strengthen its disaster behavioral health posture.
CONSTANT is an award-winning consultancy focused on executing our mission of making the world a safer place. We are an 8(a)-certified and Economically Disadvantaged Woman Owned Business (EDWOSB) with a long history of helping clients across all levels of government and the private sector prepare for catastrophic disasters and emerging threats. Our core areas of expertise include emergency management, emerging threats, health security, and healthcare preparedness. Across those areas, we provide planning, training, exercise, outreach and staffing services. We are deeply committed to delivering superior customer service, providing a platform for our team members to thrive and prosper, and embodying our signature entrepreneurial spirit and core values. Learn more about CONSTANT here.