Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Psychologist, Public Interest, Environment and
Disaster Response, National Office

"I just didn't know what to expect ... It was like nothing I'd ever imagined before ... We were so unprepared ... I didn't realise I would be so terrified ... I was not ready for this."

Living through a natural disaster can be a truly terrifying experience. As well, there are many critical decisions that need to be made and many things that people threatened by a disaster may need to do to keep themselves and the people around them safe. Afterwards, there is a lifetime of living with the memories of what happened and how they reacted. Good preparedness is a key to managing all of these factors.

People who have been affected by a disaster or emergency commonly tell stories about how unprepared they were for the enormity of the event, physically, emotionally and psychologically. Most local communities are simply not prepared for a major event, even in risk prone areas. We also know that low levels of preparedness are obstacles to effective response, and can delay overall recovery (Peek & Mileti, 2002).

Helping people prepare themselves before a disaster is therefore critically important, and an integral part of the four Rs of effective disaster management: readiness, risk reduction, response and recovery. Active participation by all community members has now become the moving force in managing emergencies (Ronan & Johnston, 2005). The emphasis is on building community resilience beforehand, so that communities can rebound as quickly as possible after an event. Within a community resilience model, families and schools are increasingly being seen as an important conduit of information and preparedness activity.

As part of the APS disaster work, materials have been developed that emphasise the importance of preparing psychologically for disasters. This includes AIMing for psychological preparedness in three steps: Anticipating how a person (and close others) might feel, think and behave during an emergency; Identifying the specific thoughts and feelings that might be experienced; and finally learning and practising techniques for Managing distressing feelings and unhelpful thoughts so that the ability to think more clearly, make decisions, and feel more in control and confident is maximised (Morrissey & Reser, 2003).

Focus on families

The latest APS brochures focus on families and are aimed at helping to prepare children for the threat of natural disasters (one brochure on bushfires and the other on cyclones). These brochures were written and developed in collaboration with the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network.

The brochures provide ways of assisting parents and carers to help children manage their fears and to have a greater sense of being in control so that they are not overwhelmed in threatening disaster situations. The brochures contain tips for helping children, such as:

  • Involving children in physical preparations for disasters
  • Assisting parents to prepare themselves psychologically so that they feel more in control, and then encouraging them to teach their children the same skills
  • Listening to children's concerns and fears and correcting any thoughts or ideas that are exaggerated or inaccurate
  • Remaining positive and reassuring
  • Planning ways to protect children during a disaster, including removing them from possible exposure to traumatic experiences as the best protection from any potential long term harmful effects.

The brochures can be downloaded from the APS website (www.psychology.org.au/Content.aspx?ID=2868). Several other resources and tip sheets have been developed that are also available to download including the Don't panic, be prepared brochure and the Psychological preparation for natural disasters tip sheet. Multiple copies of the brochures and tip sheets can be ordered from the APS (priced at cost recovery only).

The Australian disaster calendar

This year, the APS will target disaster-vulnerable regions in the months preceding the start of a disaster season. A disaster calendar has been prepared that will be used to anticipate which regions are threatened by different types of disaster at different times of the year. The mainstream and local media will be used to find a number of ways of providing communities with information about psychological preparedness ahead of bushfire, cyclone and flood seasons across Australia.

To order any of these resources, please send an email request to m.weissner@psychology.org.au. APS members who wish to facilitate the communication of disaster preparedness information in their own local communities should send an email to s.burke@psychology.org.au. 

  

References

Peek, L.A., & Mileti, D.S. (2002). The history and future of disaster research. In R.B. Bechtel & A.Churchman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Ronan, K. R., & Johnston,D.M. (2005). Promoting community resilience in disasters. New York: Springer.

Morrissey, S.A., & Reser, J.P. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of psychological preparedness advice in community cyclone preparedness materials. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 18, 44-59.

InPsych June 2010