Natural disasters don’t discriminate. Storms, floods or fires can impact any community. Human-caused disasters sometimes do discriminate, with certain individuals or communities being targeted (e.g., the shooting at Pulse nightclub) or neglected (e.g., the water crisis in Flint, Michigan). This complicates the work that needs to be done, but whether the disaster is natural or human caused, counselors are well-situated to bring about real, positive change and help people recover.
Disaster mental health (DMH) can seem like a misnomer. How can we be talking about mental health in the midst of a disaster? But counselors have demonstrated that being connected to the community and focusing on resilience, even in the midst of a crisis, can set the stage for remarkable growth.
We have seen an evolution in the field. We no longer refer to “victims” of disasters; rather, we talk about “survivors.” That may seem inconsequential, but language is important. Language helps us to frame and focus how we intend to respond. Being called a victim suggests that I am the passive recipient of something, whereas being called a survivor implies agency — I am active in my survival.
My friend Lennis Echterling and his colleagues took this idea one step further, suggesting that we don’t have to limit ourselves to being victims or even survivors of tragedy. Rather, there is an opportunity for us to thrive as a result of our experiences, even traumatic ones.
These counselors propose that once an individual resolves the distress of helplessness and hopelessness that often accompanies a trauma, they are ready to move into the Survivor stage. There, individuals begin to manage their emotions more effectively, make contact with people who have shared the experience, make meaning of their experiences and take action to set their lives back on track.
Some individuals are then able to move into the Thriver stage, feeling a sense of community, meaning, resolve and power in their lives again. Thrivers take their experiences and reengage in their lives as advocates, with a new sense of purpose that may have been lacking before. This is similar to the idea of posttraumatic growth, which can bring about a greater appreciation of life, closer relationships, new possibilities, increased personal strength and spiritual change. Although we are all well-versed in the concept of posttraumatic stress disorder, we talk less frequently about the potential for growth following a traumatic event. But most people possess the potential for resolve and resilience that makes becoming a Thriver, and experiencing growth, a real possibility even after a major trauma.
Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I recognize that disasters take a toll that is real, and recovery takes time. Counselors need to support people through the grief, loss and shattered beliefs that accompany disaster. Our message can be, “This is going to be hard for a while, then it will be better, and then things will be different. As it gets closer, you get to choose what different looks like.” If we carry our own internal mindset of “what is right with my client is more powerful than what is wrong,” we can set the stage for growth, even in the darkest of times.
Just as in our day-to-day work as counselors, self-care is incredibly important in DMH. Staying connected to a community that can help us share the load, making meaning of our work and staying focused on the difference we can make (or have made), rather than the enormity of the crisis, are important considerations for counselors and survivors. We must also take time away to exercise, meditate or find renewal. There is important work to be done every day in our own communities, and counselors can make an incredible difference.
Those interested in learning more about DMH may want to get involved with the ACA Traumatology Interest Network (see counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks).