Supplies like water, food, and medical supplies are essential during a disaster. However, these may not be enough. Research into past tragedies demonstrates that our mental resources may play a significant role in survival in emergency situations.
We have been told that it’s essential to prepare for disasters throughout history. In the Bible, Genesis books 41 and 42, God directed Joseph to stockpile enough food to survive seven years of famine.
During the Middle Ages, people gathered and preserved as much food as possible during the summer months. This helped them get through the cold winters in Europe without starving. It also helped guard against the constant threats of war, drought, and famine that were common during those times.
Throughout both World Wars I and II, the United States and other nations encouraged their citizens to grow “Victory Gardens” to help keep the country fed during a time of food rationing. The idea of self-sufficiency became so popular that by 1944, more than 20 million victory gardens were planted within the United States and produced over eight million tons of fruits and vegetables.
Indeed, it is essential to be prepared during an emergency. Most disasters are unexpected by nature and leave little time to prepare. Also, during disasters, just as we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, people tend to engage in panic buying and other fear-driven behaviors despite being told not to by authorities. So, yes, preparation well in advance is vital. The problem is that most of us are leaving out a key component of disaster planning.
Disaster Preparation: The Missing Link of the Puzzle
When we talk about a disaster plan, we often talk about stocking up on food, ammunition, and medical supplies. These things are considered to be the “backbone” of disaster preparation. In fact, there is a saying: “Beans, Bullets, and Band-Aids,” which refers to this notion.
While it is true that things like food, medical supplies, and water are critical when it comes to preparing for disaster, there is an essential component that is being left out of most disaster prep plans: mental health preparedness. Mental health is rarely mentioned in articles that talk about disaster preparation. Most emergency preparedness plans don’t even consider mental health. In fact, Ready.gov, the United States National Public Service Campaign’s website, urges people to stock an emergency kit with water, food, extra batteries, sleeping bags, and a can opener. But, it fails to mention anything about mental health. We are not told how to prepare emotionally for an emergency or crisis. This fact is unfortunate, as mental health plays a huge role in our ability to survive a disaster. In fact, the importance of staying calm in an emergency can not be understated.
Why Mental Health Needs To Be A Part Of Disaster Planning
I ran a humanitarian relief organization in Southeast Asia in one of my previous careers. This organization worked to defend the rights and empower children who had experienced poverty, hunger, and other injustices. We provided assistance to children and communities affected by hunger, disaster, conflict, and injustices. We responded to emergency disasters on three continents.
Our volunteers, staff, and first responders worked in often dangerous and challenging environments. In leading medical outreach teams on three continents, I observed first-hand how, in a crisis, the weak link in any disaster situation wasn’t a lack of supplies but the emotional, spiritual, and mental health of the volunteers, staff, and first responders. When aide workers and volunteers cared for their mental health, they were better able to function under these conditions and provide life-saving assistance to others. Indeed, author Laurence Gonzales, who has written numerous books on disasters and survival, says that emotions and personality influence the chance for survival during emergencies to a far greater degree than supplies or equipment.
The Role of Mental Health During a Disaster
Lessons from the MS Estonia Tragedy
On a stormy September night In 1994, one of the worst disasters in maritime history occurred. The luxurious cruise ferry MS Estonia headed out on the Baltic Sea towards Stockholm. Unfortunately, the calm seas soon turned turbulent, and survivors recalled a loud noise as the ferry was struck by a gale wind that broke the bow door. This caused the vessel to capsize and take on water, eventually sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
Survival that night was quite simple. Action paid. Inaction resulted in death. Survivors had to act quickly to get out. People who hesitated had no chance at all. Fortunately for survivors, help arrived quickly. The ship’s captain declared an emergency fairly quickly, and rescuers arrived within a half-hour, ready to assist.
This disaster was one of Europe’s worst peacetime tragedies at sea. In spite of the early emergency response, more than 85 percent of those on board perished. Survival experts who reviewed the disaster were astonished at how many people did not survive. Experts say that far more people should have been saved because of the swiftness with which help arrived. Researchers into the tragedy finally concluded that the factors that prevented more people from being rescued were fear and anxiety.
According to official reports, a large number of people on the doomed ship seemed to be incapable of rational thinking and behavior because of their fear. Survivors described people “rushing to and fro without a purpose” like scared animals. People panicked, crawling around on the promenade and crying. Others sat apathetically against the walls refusing to budge even when other passengers and rescuers tried to guide them or use force to get them to act. They were petrified and could not be compelled to move. Despite being provided with life vests and other supplies, many people on the ship died because they were paralyzed by their emotions.
How Fear Paralyzes Us
During emergencies, we are biologically wired to react quickly. When faced with a threat, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode. It prepares itself by suddenly producing the hormones adrenaline as well as cortisol. These hormones are what prompt you to act quickly. This is helpful for survival because often, time is of the essence. However, on the flip side, the physiological process that occurs can impair your ability to think critically. As a result, your emotions take over. This can cause you to behave in an irrational manner, which is likely what happened in the case of MS Estonia.
Our Mental Health After a Disaster
Just as our mental health impacts our ability to cope with emergencies, a disaster can seriously impact our mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic led to sweeping changes in our lives that resulted in a mental health crisis as much as a physical health one. Social isolation, restrictions in our day-to-day lives, job loss, illness and death of loved ones all led to increased feelings of anxiety, grief, despair, and depression during the pandemic. Experts say that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on mental health.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there was a 25 percent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide due to the pandemic. The WHO calls this a “wake-up” call and stresses the importance of paying more attention to mental health.
Not everyone experienced worsening mental health issues during the pandemic. There are certain factors that lead some groups of people to experience more issues. These include having a previous history of mental health issues, feeling pessimistic about the future, and being socially isolated.
Taking care of our mental health before and after a disaster can help us cope better during a crisis and recover quicker. I have a family friend named Flo who survived the Nazi firebombing of London in WWII as a young girl. She describes feeling almost incapacitated by fear during the war.
However, during this time, Flo was responsible for taking care of a chicken during this time. She said that being responsible for the chicken gave her the strength to manage her fear. Flo reasoned that if she could keep the chicken alive, she too could stay alive.
Flo credits caring for a chicken as something she did for her mental health. She said that this action saved her. It gave her inner strength and resilience when she needed it the most.
How to Emotionally Prepare for a Disaster
So, how can you prepare mentally for a disaster? Here are some practical and straightforward ways to manage your mental health before, during, and after a disaster.
Before a Disaster
Build Your Resilience
Having emotional stability is your best defense against any threat. A hopeful, positive outlook can go a long way. When you can manage your emotions, you can make better decisions and plan for uncertainties.
Developing the ability to manage your emotions takes practice. Once you learn the skills, you can draw on them to get you through the disaster.
Be Aware of Your Emotional Response in an Emergency
It’s not uncommon for people to have strong emotional reactions during emergencies, especially during things like terrorist attacks. If you are separated from family and friends during a disaster, you may feel extreme anxiety or fear. There are often repeated warnings about the risks on television and the internet during natural disasters like tornados or hurricanes. These warnings can cause people to feel helpless, anxious and confused.
Think about how you reacted emotionally during the last emergency you were involved in. Did you panic? Were you calm? Everyone reacts differently. You may not even recognize that you are under extreme emotional stress during the event. Having a better understanding of your psychological responses during emergencies can help you predict how you react in future situations. If you do tend to panic, you can then learn how to stay calm and collected using things like relaxation techniques to manage your emotions.
If you do have difficulty controlling fear, anxiety, or other emotions during an emergency, it is a good idea to learn and practice relaxation skills to help you manage crisis situations in the future.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)