The need for a reflective and strategic disaster response

A special report by:
Joseph P Reser, FAPS, James Cook University, School of Psychology
Shirley A Morrissey, MAPS, Griffith University, School of Applied Psychology, and APS Director of Membership

The recent and tragic natural disasters in south east Asia and South Australia are a stark reminder that we live in a world and era wherein a dramatically increasing number of communities are at substantial risk from natural and human caused disasters. This new millennium dawns with the realisation of dramatic global climate change, world-wide terrorism, and possible international pandemics a very real part of our social and environmental reality. Psychology as a discipline and professional practice has made a very substantial contribution to better understanding the nature of human response to impending threat, emergency response, and longer term coping in the aftermath of 'disaster'. But this contribution, and the broader disaster fronts in which psychology is operating, are not well known or profiled in Australia. Indeed other disciplines and disaster professionals, and the general public, are relatively ignorant of what psychology and psychologists have to offer. Responses from the Australian Psychological Society and individual psychologists to the tsunami tragedy and the recent bushfire outbreak in South Australia, while valuable and appropriate, have not as yet provided the broader disciplinary and interdisciplinary, and social and environmental, context for many important psychological considerations. It is timely and in many ways essential for our national professional organisation to profile and communicate the nature and scope of our past and continuing involvements with disaster research, mitigation, intervention, and recovery, and the critical collaborative and interdisciplinary niches which psychology occupies. It is equally important for the APS to develop and put in place a more strategic and long-term policy position and suite of initiatives with respect to the people side of natural and human-caused disasters.

In addition to the recent natural disaster occurrences, a current attempt to identify and delineate a number of potential social issues for possible APS consideration have led us once again to think through how the APS and its membership might better communicate what psychology as a discipline and practice has to offer in this increasingly encompassing disaster arena. 'Disasters', while a particularly salient and important risk and concern domain, jostle for attention and appropriate response with multiple other preoccupations and demands which are typically less time and event specific. It is now abundantly clear that 'greenhouse' and global warming are very real, very consequential, and vastly amplify the need for a more concerted, considered, and strategic response on the part of the multidisciplinary community of social and behavioural science researchers and practitioners who work in disaster contexts around the world (e.g., Burroughs, 2001; Houghton, 1997; Victor, 2004). Statistics compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters suggest that the number of weather-related disasters globally has doubled since the mid 1990s ( The figure for people killed in disasters around the world over the past decade has been calculated to be just under 500,000. In Time magazine the corresponding figure for those affected by natural disasters over this period is 2.5 billion (Time, 24 Jan, 2005). These figures do not take into account the recent Indian Ocean tsunami in which it is estimated that a further 235,000 people have died. Circumstances with respect to global political instability, terrorism, and the ever-pressing humanitarian need of many millions of the world's displaced, starving and desperate add, appreciably, to the genuine crisis situation which the world now faces.

Australia features prominently in the disaster context, as a country characterised by extreme climatic events, vast distances, remote communities, and other disaster mitigation challenges, a noteworthy history of human-caused as well as natural disasters, and a well-earned reputation and respect for 'being there' in the context of disasters in the Pacific region and more globally. Unfortunately though, psychology in Australia has been understood by many as a largely clinical and counselling involvement, predominantly focused on post-disaster trauma and intervention, with this latter contribution receiving very mixed reviews (e.g., Bryant, 1995; Devilly & Cotton, 2003, 2004; McNally, 2003; Mitchell, 2004; Robinson, 2004; Robinson, Mitchell & Murdoch, 1995, 1999; Weiss et al., 2003).

The current tsunami disaster situation, however, has highlighted a number of issues with respect to the profile and involvement of Australian psychology in the broader disaster area:

  • Australian psychology, to date, has not had a very marked profile or presence in the broader natural or human-caused disaster domain.
  • Psychology in Australia has not had in place good working partnerships with Emergency Australia and other disaster organisations and institutions, as is the case with American Psychological Association (APA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in North America, with this in part reflecting a relative ignorance on the part of other emergency and disaster organisations with respect to the multiple involvements of psychology in the natural and human-caused disaster areas.
  • An area of particular neglect has been that of psychological preparedness for impending natural disasters and how this relates to both physical preparedness and ultimate disaster impacts.
  • Responses have tended to emphasize the clinical aftermath of the disaster, with insufficient attention being paid to many other important considerations, such as cross-cultural differences in understandings, experience and responses, the experienced unreality of the event, protection motivation, prior experience, sense-making, social comparison, blaming, the role which warnings did or did not play, what kind of preparedness measures might have contributed to better outcomes, the role and impacts of media coverage, etc.
  • Responses have been relatively mute with respect to the very important role of culture and cultural context and other culture understandings, social constructions and representations of such events, with respect to sense-making and attributions in the wake of such events, and with respect to what are considered reasonable governmental, institutional, and professional responses with respect to affected individuals and communities.

These comments are not to say or suggest that there have not been a number of psychologists working in Australia in the natural and human-caused disaster arena, and indeed making a substantial contribution. However, the number of psychologists actively working in this area has been relatively small and psychology has the potential to be much more prominent in Australia as an important disciplinary player across this domain, informing both the public and other professional bodies.

Just as there are many disciplinary and professional practice fronts in the context of disasters, there are many very different phenomenon and events that fall under the rubric of disasters (e.g., Bell et al., 2001; Kreps, 1995; Quarantelli, 1995). These cover the spectrum from very diverse 'natural' disasters, such as bush fires, floods, cyclones and tornados, to human-caused and/or technological disasters and industrial accidents (such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, Love Canal), to encompassing ecological disasters, famine, civil disruption and war, and acts of terrorism such as 11 September. Indeed, war and terrorism have ushered in a very noteworthy area for psychological involvement and expertise. A psychological perspective on, response to, or involvement with 'disasters' needs to take this exceptionally varied landscape into account, and the equally diverse ways in which different cultures and communities themselves define, construct, represent, and impose meaning and order on what they consider to be disaster events or circumstances (e.g., Cvetkovich & Earle, 1992; Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982; Edelstein & Makofske, 1998; Renn & Rohrmann, 2000). The social and cross-cultural construction of risk, danger, disasters, and human consequences itself constitutes a diverse and critically important area of research and application in the context of effective global disaster management where psychologists have played a central role.

Our own work in the natural disaster area in Australia has focused on pre-event considerations, including threatening event perceptions, appraisals, and preparedness, as well as warning messages, systems, and threat representations. Of particular importance over recent years has been the work we have done addressing the nature and mediating factors relating to psychological preparedness, and how such psychological preparedness relates to physical preparedness, coping styles and success, and ultimate psychological impact in the case of tropical cyclones (e.g., Morrissey & Reser, 2001, 2002, 2003; Reser, 1980, 1996, 2004). This research has evidenced strong support for the efficacy of modest psychological preparedness advice for residents living in cyclone prone Northern Australian communities. This United Nations International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) funded project resulted in the preparation of an Emergency Management Australia (EMA) sponsored community training program, and the adoption by EMA of some modest emotional coping content in their suite of emergency brochures and related web page material. Other researchers have been working on this preparedness front in North America, principally in the context of the effectiveness of warning messages (e.g., Dooley et al., 1992; Mileti & Sorensen, 1990; Riad & Norris, 1998), and in Australia (e.g., Rohrmann, 1995, 1998, 2000), but this research has not been framed in terms of psychological preparedness, nor has it made substantive use of stress inoculation training or other psychologically oriented cognition and emotion management interventions. For a number of reasons, interest in and research undertaken with respect to preparedness, and in particular psychological prepardness, has not held the public and policy salience and interest that post impact trauma has, despite its clear preventive and mitigation relevance, and repeated natural and international disaster agency emphasis. It is timely and appropriate that the APS consider immediate and longer-term options with respect to advice, initiatives, guidelines and policy in the context of disasters. Natural and human-caused disasters, as with virtually all environmental issues and challenges, require an informed, sustained, multi and interdisciplinary response.

It is essential that our professional body carefully consider the larger topography of disaster research, practice, and collaborative involvements on the part of psychologists and other social scientists and health professionals. Whatever we have to say or offer should be situated with respect to the multiple fronts on which Australian and overseas psychologists are already working, and discussed in a context of multiple collaborative and complementary initiatives and involvements. As well, we should be looking forward to what challenges this millennium has in store for us and our profession. Greenhouse, climate change, environmental degradation, and chronic human system failures, frame our perception and understanding of today's world. These larger environmental concerns, threats, and increasingly frequent disaster events have very real consequences and implications in terms of community impacts and effective preventive behaviour change and adjustment initiatives and interventions for both victims and disaster workers.

It might well be argued that Australian psychology's current course, without correction, is taking us into difficult waters. We suggest that our current public profile, while emphasising an important clinical post-event trauma perspective, is not sufficient. An over-emphasis on trauma is often at the expense of a wide range of other mental health considerations and issues (e.g., Weiss et al. 2003). It is also important to remember that distinctions between psychology and psychiatry are still pretty muddled in public perceptions and understandings. Media releases and initiatives which focus exclusively on clinical intervention and post-event trauma in many ways reinforce what is an unfortunate and narrow stereotype of psychology's many-faceted involvements with disasters, and do little to educate public understanding of psychology. An important issue relates to undergraduate psychology programs in Australia, where applied and interdisciplinary areas such as environmental psychology are often marginalised, such that areas of research and theory relating to risk assessment, communication and management, and natural and human-caused disasters, receive scant coverage in health, clinical, or social psychology subjects, and psychology students graduate with little or no exposure to or expertise in the disaster area or the many multidisciplinary domains in which applied psychologists operate. Our Society could be a very effective agent of change in fostering a more accurate public and academic appreciation of where, how and why psychology is being increasingly turned to for wisdom and best practice in disaster-related public health and risk communication matters as well as with respect to coping and post-event recovery.

Finally, it is clearly important for the Society to consider what initiatives might improve the present situation. Certainly press releases are important and necessary, and it might be very useful to prepare selective media material for appropriate situations. Notwithstanding the need to more effectively profile and communicate how psychology and psychologists have been addressing the daunting challenges of natural and technological disasters, it is the case that an unprecedented disaster such as the current tsunami situation requires a clear and immediate APS focus and response relating to intervention, alleviation, and recovery. The immediate APS media response over the difficult holiday period was important and well received. Ultimately, however, our credentials and credibility require some reference to a commitment and track record across the spectrum of disaster prevention, mitigation, and management, and a more strategic mission and set of objectives with respect to future events, and the neglected areas, for psychology, of prevention, behaviour change, and public health. The APS established a Working Group on psychology and disasters early last year, and a number of initiatives are currently underway. We would like to offer the following additional recommendations for consideration.

The APS might wish to:

  • Establish a Disaster Network for psychologists along the lines of that established by APA and FEMA in North America.
  • Develop a set of stand-alone disaster-relevant text and web-based materials with APS branding for wider distribution.
  • Review material (and possibly education and warning systems) currently provided by EMA, and make formal recommendations and suggestions to that body with respect to possible omissions, anomalies and shortcomings relating to the human and psychological side of disaster preparedness, warnings, interventions, and recovery.
  • Formally establish and profile partnership arrangements or other linkages with EMA, the Australian Red Cross and other disaster organisations and centres, with psychological involvement and expertise being representative of the multiple areas of expertise available within the discipline.
  • Initiate a review and/or position paper on psychology and disasters, which provides particular information, insights, and evidence-based best practice findings for other professionals, paraprofessionals and agencies involved in disaster preparedness and mitigation. This would assist with a much-needed public awareness and education exercise.
  • Commission an edited book of source articles and chapters written by psychologists working in Australia and the Pacific. While a fairly recent New Zealand publication exists (e.g., Paton & Long, 1996), it is now almost 10 years since this volume was published and there have been many dramatic subsequent disasters that have impacted on our understandings of risk perception and response.
  • Identify and address particularly relevant research areas and priorities for psychology.


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