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What Is Disaster Recovery for Mental Health?

November 23, 2021

When a disaster such as a hurricane, flood, or fire strikes, the immediate impact is easily recognizable. In its wake lies great physical devastation, from cars to houses, with hundreds of thousands of people being forced from their homes. These outward signs of disaster demonstrate the havoc that a disaster can wreak on daily life, a community’s infrastructure, and other socioeconomic elements that bind a community and its individuals together. 

Disasters can also create issues that are not as easily seen as the physical aftermath of a fire or a hurricane. They can lead to long-term mental and emotional struggles. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can manifest; in some cases, individuals may turn to substance use as a coping mechanism. While communities need to have a disaster recovery strategy established to deal with the tangible effects of a disaster, they also need to have a disaster recovery strategy to address the mental health needs of survivors. Social work professionals can be instrumental in ensuring that survivors receive the necessary mental health support. Those seeking a degree in social work with an emphasis on disaster recovery should understand what disaster recovery is from a mental health perspective and know how to implement strategies that can positively impact affected communities and residents.

Stages of Trauma During and After Disaster

According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the onset of disaster trauma is a complex progression characterized by six stages: pre-disaster, impact, heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment, and reconstruction. Throughout these stages, survivors experience a range of reactions, thoughts, and feelings. 

Each person reacts to trauma differently, and symptoms may present in various ways. Common indicators of trauma include feeling sad or numb, having difficulty sleeping, feeling irritable or angry, and experiencing fear and anxiety. To provide effective disaster mental health support, social workers need to understand each phase of disaster trauma.


Fear and uncertainty are the key characteristics of the pre-disaster stage, which can last anywhere from a few minutes to several months. How these characteristics manifest depends on the type of disaster. An unforeseen disaster, such as a terrorist attack or an earthquake, may leave a person feeling vulnerable and without a sense of control over the situation. A foreseen or forecasted disaster, such as a hurricane, may cause a person to feel guilt, shame, or self-blame due to not heeding the warnings or being underprepared.


People experience a wide range of intense emotional reactions to the actual disaster. They first experience shock and disbelief, then panic. Next come feelings of protecting loved ones, self-preservation, or ensuring survival. These feelings may correlate to unorthodox behaviors, such as wandering in a dazed, detached manner. While the impact stage is typically the shortest of the six stages, its precise length depends on the type of disaster. For instance, a disaster that destroys a person’s home may cause the emotions associated with the impact phase to linger longer.


During the heroic stage, people become frantic, leading to a lot of activity that is not necessarily productive. The stage tends to pass quickly in relation to the other stages. The stage is also often the basis for inspiring human interest stories in the media, for example, stories of teachers who tackled gunmen on their campuses or people who ran into burning buildings to save others still trapped inside. These behaviors can be characterized as fight-or-flight reactions fueled by adrenaline.


The honeymoon stage typically begins when disaster assistance becomes available. Acts of self-preservation and individual heroism are no longer needed as disaster relief specialists take over, providing aid and support to those affected. The resolve to rebuild the community kicks in, buoyed by bonding and an optimistic outlook that things can return to normal efficiently. Social workers can be an integral part of this stage as they can help people connect to relief organizations and help build rapport between affected individuals and the institutions providing aid. This stage can potentially last several weeks depending on the type of disaster.


The honeymoon stage typically gives way to disillusionment. Hope wanes as the road to recovery stretches on for individuals and communities still under stress. As the optimism from the honeymoon stage fades, people may turn to negative coping strategies, such as substance use. They may also experience burnout or exhaustion as they push toward getting things back to normal. In some cases, any unmet needs may be met with other feelings of abandonment. This stage can last months or years and can be periodically refueled through calendar markers like a disaster’s anniversary.


Reconstruction, the final stage, focuses on recovery. People start rebuilding their lives and communities, and a “new normal” sets in as people move on while still grappling with loss. Several factors may impact the efficiency of this stage, including socioeconomic, political, racial, and cultural elements. This stage can take months or even years to play out, and this length of time may correspond to a disaster’s direct impact on an individual’s life. It may take much longer for a person who lost their home in a hurricane to recover than a person whose house suffered relatively minimal damage.

Recovery After Disaster Trauma: The Social Worker’s Perspective

Social workers and disaster mental health recovery counselors are vital in supporting individuals and communities through the recovery process. Working one-on-one to help individuals process trauma is an  essential step in disaster mental health recovery. Through this process, social workers can help individuals identify symptoms of trauma and connect them to valuable resources and support networks.

Social workers can also make an impact through community preparedness and education. “It seems so simplistic, but you would be surprised how many folks don’t know what resources are available to them or how to access them,” explains Reggie Ferreira, program director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and associate professor at Tulane University. These resources may include water and shelter, or less-tangible support like a sense of belonging and support. “These things can go missing through disaster, and this is where a social worker or disaster resilience worker can provide temporary relief,” Ferreira explains.

An Opportunity for Advocacy

The aftermath of a disaster can further expose and exacerbate existing social inequities. For a social worker, part of disaster recovery is developing strategies to mitigate this. These strategies can lead to more equitable recovery in the long term and help develop policies and procedures that can address the underlying issues contributing to the disparities.

Disaster Mental Health Resources

Being informed empowers individuals, families, and communities, especially in terms of disaster mental health resources. According to Ferreira, “Individuals who have access to resources are more resilient and able to address traumatic events post-disaster than those who are not aware of resources that are available.” The following organizations are resources for useful information on disaster relief and related mental health issues:

  • American Red Cross
  • Green Cross Academy of Traumatology
  • National Center for PTSD

Additionally, the national Disaster Distress Helpline offers year-round disaster crisis counseling. The helpline is toll free, multilingual, and available 24/7 to residents in the U.S. and its territories. The phone number is 800-985-5990.

Learn More About The Role of Social Work in Disaster Mental Health

The resources listed above are certainly valuable, but they rely on the efforts of individual people to remain active. Social workers and disaster relief specialists ensure that individuals and communities know about these resources and that they remain in operation. 

If you want to contribute to this effort and join the ranks of people who support disaster mental health, consider the Online Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership dual degree program, the Online MSW, or the Disaster and Collective Trauma Certificate from Tulane University. Through courses on crisis intervention, clinical treatment approaches, and disaster resilience leadership, students learn to identify trauma and help alleviate its effect on individuals and communities.

Learn more about the MSW / MS-DRL program and how you can help build resilient communities.