psychosocial management of large scale disasters

Disasters have a far reaching and wide ranging effect on the mental health of individuals, families and communities. Natural disasters, manmade disasters, technological disasters, transport disasters, explosions, terrorist attacks all have in common that it involves large numbers of people and severe physical, psychological and social trauma. Disasters usually cause severe loss of resources and serious threat to life and well-being. Typically access to safety and protection, to shelter and medical attention, to sustainance and clothing, is disrupted, but what is often lost sight of is the psychological and social impact.

Disasters almost always cause severe loss and grief and disruption of social infrastructure. Families, relationships and communities are torn apart and the trauma causes widespread mental health problems. The large scale loss of material and social resources makes it very difficult for individuals to recover from the psychological trauma leading to a high incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. The objective of psychosocial disaster intervention is to create awareness and access to resources for disaster victims to mitigate the impact on their mental health.

The traumaClinic model of psychosocial disaster preparedness stands on three legs, the Psychological First Aid approach developed in North America from working with victims of 9/11, the hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and more recent work in Haiti, and the TENTS (The European Network for Traumatic Stress) approach developed in work with survivors of the Enschede fireworks disaster in 2000, The Madrid bombings in 2004, the London tube bombings 2005, the Schiphol airport crash in 2009, and others. The traumaClinic model is also based on local experience in South African, including work in under resourced and underprivileged communities.

What sets the traumaClinic model of psychosocial disaster preparedness apart is its focus on developing community resilience by activating existing community resources before disaster strikes, whereas most other approaches deal mainly with disaster response. This is particularly relevant in South Africa because it is clear that certain communities, like informal shack dwelling communities, experience more frequent emergencies and are more vulnerable than other better resources communities.

Our track record stretches as far back as 1995 when our staff were involved in dealing with the St.James Church and the Heidelberg Pub massacres. We were consulted following the Grassy Park petrol station massacre 2001, and in 2004 we dealt with South African survivors of the Tsunami and with the Tsunami relief effort in Sri Lanka. More recently our staff participated in the relief efforts following zenophobia attacks in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. We have also been actively involved in community action projects in Lavender Hill, Hanover Park and Grassy Park in the field of trauma, and we have provided extensive training in the Western Cape Education Department in the management of large scale trauma at schools.

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