Key facts from the World Health Organization

  • Almost all people affected by emergencies will experience psychological distress, which for most people will improve over time.
  • Among people who have experienced war or other conflict in the previous 10 years, one in five (22%) will have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • People with severe mental disorders are especially vulnerable during emergencies and need access to mental health care and other basic needs.
  • International guidelines recommend services at a number of levels ̶ from basic services to clinical care ̶ and indicate that mental health care needs to be made available immediately for specific, urgent mental health problems as part of the health response.
  • Despite their tragic nature and adverse effects on mental health, emergencies have shown to be opportunities to build sustainable mental health systems for all people in need.

Types of problems

There are various types of social and mental health problems in any large emergency.

Mental health problems:

  • pre-existing: e.g. mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia or harmful use of alcohol;
  • emergency-induced: e.g. grief, acute stress reactions, harmful use of alcohol and drugs, and depression and anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder; and
  • humanitarian response-induced: e.g. anxiety due to a lack of information about food distribution or about how to obtain basic services.

Warning Signs of Excessive Stress from U.S Department of Health & Human Services

  • Bodily sensations and physical effects

Rapid heart rate, palpitations, muscle tension, headaches, tremors, gastrointestinal distress, nausea, inability to relax when off duty, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, nightmares or flashbacks

  • Strong negative feelings

Fear or terror in life-threatening situations or perceived danger, anger, frustration, argumentativeness, irritability, deep sadness, difficulty maintaining emotional balance

  • Difficulty thinking clearly

Disorientation or confusion, difficulty problem-solving and making decisions, difficulty remembering instructions, inability to see situations clearly, distortion and misinterpretation of comments and events

  • Problematic or risky behaviors

Unnecessary risk-taking, failure to use personal protective equipment, refusal to follow orders or leave the disaster scene, endangerment of team members, increased use or misuse of prescription drugs or alcohol

  • Social conflicts

Irritability, anger and hostility, blaming, reduced ability to support teammates, conflicts with peers or family, withdrawal, isolation
Some disaster-specific warning signs include high adrenaline, physical euphoria, numbness—the endorphin effect (a reduction in feeling) disguises distress. Coupled with fatigue, cognition can change and create an inability to recognize poor judgment. Anger is a common defense against recognizing these problems.

Additional Resources

U.S Department of Health & Human Services  

Center for Disease Control: Caring For Children in Disasters 

Center for Disease Control: Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event