Globally, an average of 24.6 million people are displaced by a disaster each year (Ferris, 2016). In 2012, I was one of them. Growing up on a peninsula in Queens, New York, down the block from the beach, we lived blissfully ignorant to the power of the ocean. Sure, we knew there was a risk, but we never thought we’d see a major flood in our lifetimes. We were so wrong. The storm surge was massive, bringing the ocean ashore, and my neighborhood was six feet under.
My family, and countless other families along the coasts of New York and New Jersey, faced the challenges of rebuilding a home. Displaced from our ravaged house, my family had to adjust to living doubled-up with relatives in a new town while facing the uncertainty of when we could return home. We had flood insurance, a financial safety net, and a place to stay, but many others did not. Replacing household utilities, cars, and belongings can add up quickly, and relief from insurance and government efforts was slow to come. On top of this, the cleanup was physically and mentally draining, and only the start of the rebuilding process.
Caption. "I coped how a 15-year-old might cope: on Instagram, of course."
My community and others like it could have greatly benefited from insights from the research and work of psychologists. The American Psychological Association outlines several key roles that psychologists may play after a natural disaster: listening to concerns, advocating for needs, as well as providing information, coping and problem-solving strategies, and assurance that recovery is possible (American Psychological Association, 2014). Industrial-organizational psychologists could work to eliminate the stressors that affect people after a disaster by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of relief efforts. Regarding the community, social support played a large role in my neighborhood’s ability to rebuild, to transition as individuals and as a community from old to new.
Psychologists might explore ways to help facilitate social support and community belongingness in these situations, especially in vulnerable populations. Furthermore, therapists could provide strategies for dealing with the stress and trauma of a suddenly disrupted life. The effects of post-disaster stress may be seen across demographic groups, and the mental health implications may be long-lasting (Arnberg, Bergh Johannesson, & Michel, 2013; Kessler et al., 2008; Mcfarlane & Van Hooff, 2009). Looking back, coping strategies could have assisted me—and surely others facing worse situations due to socioeconomic factors or a lack of flood insurance—to help push through that time of need. In general, the work of psychologists can be vital in supporting relief efforts following a disaster, natural or otherwise.
With the threat of climate change, natural disasters like hurricanes are predicted to become not only more frequent but also more devastating. The theme for the 11th Annual Psychology Day at the United Nations is “Climate Change: Psychological Interventions Promoting Mitigation and Adaptation,” signaling an acknowledgement of the potential for psychologists to assume an important role in shaping the future, and further support for psychological research regarding the impact of environment-related issues is warranted (United Nations, 2018). My hope is that the knowledge and practices of psychology will be applied to augment the work of other fields to help reduce the impact of disasters, and also to analyze and tackle the problems posed by climate change in an objective and socially conscious way.
American Psychological Association. (2014, April). What psychologists do on disaster relief operations. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/disaster-site.aspx
Arnberg, F. K., Bergh Johannesson, K., & Michel, P. (2013). Prevalence and duration of PTSD in survivors six years after a natural disaster. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 27, 347–352. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2013.03.011
Ferris, E. (2016, July 29). Disasters, displacement, and climate change: New evidence and common challenges facing the north and south. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2015/07/27/disasters-displacement-and-climate-change-new-evidence-and-common-challenges-facing-the-north-and-south/
Kessler, R. C., Galea, S., Gruber, M. J., Sampson, N. A, Ursano, R. J, & Wessely, S. (2008). Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Molecular Psychiatry, 13, 374–384. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.mp.4002119
Mcfarlane, A. C., & Van Hooff, M. (2009). Impact of childhood exposure to a natural disaster on adult mental health: 20-year longitudinal follow-up study. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 195, 142–8. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.108.054270
Psychology Day at the UN. (n.d.). United Nations. Retrieved April 04, 2018, from https://www.unpsychologyday.com/