Communities protected psychologically by help after disaster

The outpouring of community spirit and the selfless acts of helping that occur after disaster may act as a protective factor for psychological health, according to a US psychologist who is presenting at the 46th Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference in Canberra.

Dr Krzysztof Kaniasty, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said, “Research shows good relationships underpin people’s psychological health. People who have strong bonds with friends and family and who feel cared for by others and able to care for others, have a solid foundation for good mental health.”

He said disasters affect people’s relationships and sense of community connection, which can affect their mental health.  

“In the aftermath of disaster it is a repeatedly observed phenomenon that community spirit is bolstered. People rally around each other and previous barriers that separated them such as race and class are temporarily overlooked as people are united in common action.”

Dr Kaniasty said: “Even though this initial helping is not sustained because of the impact of the disaster, research shows that people who perceived they experienced a high level of support in the aftermath of disaster are protected psychologically and have more positive attitudes toward their communities over the long term.

People who receive a lot of support and emotional care after a disaster believe they can count on others, they feel that people are benevolent and kind, and they maintain a stronger sense of connection to their community, all of which underpin their mental health, protecting them psychologically from the impact of the inevitable social disruption that will occur.”

Understanding the importance of people’s bonds to each other and maintaining those social connections helps psychologists to support disaster-affected communities.

“We need to find ways to support people in disaster-affected communities so they can help one another,” Dr Kaniasty said. “Disaster doesn’t just affect the physical environment but the very nature and structure of affected communities so rebuilding efforts need to involve rebuilding a sense of community and re-connecting people to each other as well as rebuilding the infrastructure.”

Kaniasty’s research has shown that “one way of deterring lasting negative psychological consequences of disasters should be through protecting and maintaining communal resilience.”

Helping Communities after disaster

For post-crisis help to be effective:

  • it must be allocated in ways that are transparent, easily understood, and perceived as fair and sensitive;
  • it must assist  people to rebuild their relationships and social activities;
  • it must help  people to regain a sense of control and confidence in their own abilities and the ability of their communities; and
  • it must preserve a sense of continuity, connectedness, and quality to post-disaster community life. 


Community Initiatives in Australia

Community-building has also been the focus of Australian psychologists, following recent large-scale natural disasters. The Australian Psychological Society has been involved at the community recovery level through working with the Red Cross and their personal support programs.

Dr Susie Burke, senior psychologist in disaster response at the APS, said “Personal support is about restoring safety, calm, and hope, connecting people with the supports that they need, and helping people to find their own resources and capacity to help themselves.”
Dr Kaniasty will present his keynote address:  Disasters or social catastrophes? On social psychological reactions of communities coping with natural and human-induced disasters at the 46th Australian Psychological Society Conference in Canberra on Thursday October 6 at 12 pm.


To arrange an interview with Dr Kaniasty, or Dr Susie Burke: please contact: Karen Coghlan on 0435 896 444, Judith Heywood on 03 8662 3301 or Rebecca Matthews on 03 8662 3358.