Victims of Disasters: Helping People Recover


© Erwin Randolph Parson, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

Article Courtesy of Gift From Within-PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers

When disasters strike they are sudden, unexpected, and “earth-shattering” to those affected by them. Often those who are exposed directly talk about how their lives of relative tranquility before the disaster has been radically changed, and how peace of mind has evaporated and replaced by worry and catastrophic expectations. They describe their new post-disaster reality as living life “upside down,” in a state of confusion, and pervasive anxiety, and helplessness. Disasters are generally defined as mass environmental stress affecting a large number of people. Terrorism, like no other mass disaster event, smashes to smithereens a victim’s sense of normality and reality, while eroding the sense of safety and general well-being.

Disaster victims also speak about things not being the same, of how their inner sense of safety and the ability to count on the stability of the environment (for even a modicum of predictability) has been lost. Some also speak about feeling powerless, having lost the structure of their daily lives and associated routines, and about the collective emotional distress caused by the abrupt depletion of resources and altered physical environments.

The contents of this article is based on: (1) the author’s over two decades of clinical, consultative, scientific, instructional, and administrative expertise in the area of traumatic stress, (2) the author’s direct professional activities with victims of disasters, to include the September 11th attack by terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York City during seven trips to the City beginning October 10, 2001, and (3) knowledge gleaned from decades of clinical and field studies on specific disasters in the United States and in many countries of the world. Specifically, the author has participated in helping victims exposed to the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 in northern California, the Perryville Explosion of 1991 in Perryville, Maryland, the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, the Polish Flood of 1996, Hurricane Floyd of 1999, and the World Trade Center (WTC) attack of September 11, 2001.

The Reality And Incidence Of Disasters

Disasters are found everywhere in the United States and around the world, and can be traced throughout the history of human existence. Historically, we find various parts of the world had endured tidal waves, famines, earthquakes, floods, mining accidents, bombings, industro-chemical explosions, bush fires, mudslides, and pestilence, to include the Great Plague of Europe between 1347 and 1350.

Though most victims interviewed in New York City by this writer showed symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, responses were diverse. This diversity of stress response can be expected given the differing personality styles, prior experiences, prior traumas, and the general mental health of these individuals prior to the flood, typhoon, earthquake, or industrial accident.

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