'We as psychologists shouldn't rush into the fray without first doing our homework' 

Professor Kevin Ronan MAPS, Chair of the APS Disaster Preparedness and Response Reference Group, brings a ‘voice from the ground' as he lives and works in Rockhampton, which was the first town in Queensland to be majorly inundated in January 2011. For days, Rockhampton was cut off by land and air, hundreds of homes were flooded, and up to 3,000 properties were affected.

What was it like living through the flood?

We weren't directly affected in this event but in November 2009, we did have to evacuate during some large scale bushfires in this area. However, we know many people who were affected, and as one of them told me while the water was still high in his area, stress was not a major issue then but he knew from experience that "the stress really starts once the water recedes". One thing that I am noting anecdotally, that speaks to some theories and research done in psychology, sociology and other areas, is that the number of people who have put their hand up to try to help in various ways is truly gratifying, even weeks afterwards. For example, when the local Council put out the word for people to show up to help with cleaning parks and replanting along the riverside, hundreds took Saturday off to help. My family and I have pitched in both through community volunteer efforts as well as helping out those we know who were affected.

Another thing I am noting more recently is that the stories in the media have started emphasising some of the shortcomings of the response effort. This shift does mirror experience after other disasters, and also reflects some theoretical models about stages in community recovery. It is not helpful to buy in too much to such negativity at this stage, although proper evaluation is always important.

How would you advise APS members who might be considering making themselves available in a voluntary capacity to emergency relief/recovery efforts, or perhaps working in a professional role in situations such as this?

The first recommendation would be, following our training as psychologists, to make sure they have their ‘scientist-practitioner' hats on and first know the research about what helps. Secondly, immediately after a disaster the best kind of help we can provide as psychologists is to be educating the public about the basics of the science - stress and distress is normal, and 80-90 per cent of people recover with a combination of time and support.

Support comes in different forms, including tangible, informational/problem solving, social and emotional, and, finally, through various means of self support. Thus, we can help people plug into various forms of support while staying ‘on message' about the normal trajectory of initial distress but eventual recovery. Forcing or strongly encouraging people to talk about their experiences in the immediate aftermath is not recommended; we now know that such an approach may not only not help, it might for some make matters worse. Now that doesn't mean we shouldn't be available to speak with people who want to talk, but rather it supports the idea of ‘least intrusive intervention' as well as voluntary forms of assistance. The major approach recommended now that fits with both these principles is psychological first aid. For the 10-20 per cent of people who might require more formal types of assistance, there are evidence-informed interventions available.

Given that we can expect more frequent extreme weather episodes, how would you like to see your profession and colleagues respond to such events in the future?

I would like to see an increasingly evidence-supported approach where we are able to fit into an overall coordinated response and recovery approach within affected areas. This can be done through getting up-skilled, becoming familiar with the research on psychsosocial recovery, and developing relationships with government and non-government organisations in our own community concerned with disaster preparedness, response
and recovery.

I'd also like to see psychologists get more involved in work prior to an actual disaster, in the ‘preparedness and prevention' phase of the disaster cycle.

Is there a take-home message for psychologists?

First, we as psychologists shouldn't rush into the fray without first doing our homework. Step one is to be aware of the range of normal reactions to an abnormal event. Those affected tend not to present for our services for some weeks or months after an event and, for that minority, one might consider getting trained in evidence-supported services. This way we can become involved more confidently and productively in a coordinated approach within our local communities.

InPsych February 2011