Disaster Response Network Committee

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, most people will suffer from stress, as well as with a wide range of psychological, behavioral, physical, and emotional reactions. For most, their reactions will gradually decrease over time, but some survivors – and responders – will experience longer-term or severe responses.

Individuals affected by disaster and tragedies typically exhibit such symptoms as anxiety, depression, stress, and grief. The most common mental health diagnosis following a disaster is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But disaster research finds that people who have experienced a traumatic event will also display an acute stress disorder with high rates of perceived stress, physical health problems, and poor sleep quality. Although the impact of a disaster will vary among individuals, fewer than 10 % of people – fortunately – will develop chronic long-term problems.

But because nearly everyone who survives a disaster will be affected in some way, having trained psychologists available to offer help is vitally important. Recognizing that most  people who have experienced a tragedy or disaster seek relevant information, the Michigan Psychological Association, through its Disaster Resource Network, provides information and resources about various aspects of coping with a crisis.

The Role of Psychologists in a Disaster
The ability of victims to cope with disasters and tragedies, whether caused by natural forces or terrorism, is frequently underestimated. Many people are able to cope with a disaster and display amazing resilience. The coping skills and resilience, so often displayed by survivors of disasters, are determined by such factors as personal strength, religious belief and faith, and by having a support system. Despite the resilience some victims of disasters may display, psychologists can often play a vital role in providing a variety of important support services.

Because psychologists are uniquely trained in helping people cope with stress and difficult emotions, they are able to help disaster survivors, volunteers and disaster relief operation workers understand their emotions, such as anger, distress and grief. Typically, psychologists do not offer therapy at disaster sites, but they can help people build upon their own internal strengths to begin the process of recovering from the disaster. Psychological first aid can be especially valuable in helping people build their skills of resilience to move from feeling hopeless to having a more long-term, realistic and more hopeful perspective.

In addition, as psychologists offer support to victims of disasters, they are also uniquely positioned to listen to people's concerns on a variety of issues, help people manage their temporary living conditions or acclimate to shelters, provide information about available resources for current needs, and advocate for the needs of particular individuals or families as they navigate the systems that have been established to provide aid.

The History of Michigan Psychological Association’s Disaster Response
Susan Silk, PhD, was at the Pentagon in 2001 after the terrorist attack. She was helping people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  And she showed up at Virginia Tech University in 2007 after the mass murders on that campus.

Dr. Silk was, in fact, the face of the Michigan Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network (DRN) from the early 1990s until 2018 when she took on the role of APA Council Representative for MPA. Heading up MPA’s DRN, Dr. Silk was one of a small number of psychologists around the country who were among the first responders offering psychological aid following a variety of disasters and tragedies.

In 2016, the American Psychological Association discontinued its Disaster Response Network and, instead, instituted a Disaster Resource Network. The Disaster Resource Network offers disaster research and information on its website. As a result, MPA also re-evaluated its own role in responding to disasters and tragedies, both in Michigan and in other locations.

As of 2020, the Michigan Psychological Association is working closely with the American Red Cross and its local Regional Disaster Officer in providing both information and volunteers to be available to respond to disasters where a psychologist can provide counseling and support to individuals and families.

 Where to Find Disaster Help and Resources

American Red Cross
  • 1-800-RedCross  (1-800-733-27677) or RedCross.org
  • Need help after a disaster? Go to RedCross.org; Click on “Get Help” tab
  • Virtual Family Assistance Center
  • Disaster Response Helpline: 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
  • To volunteer with the Red Cross or receive training: Redcross.org; Click on Volunteer tab
American Psychological Association Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Institutes of Health National Institute of Mental Health Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration U.S. Department of Agriculture Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • Disaster Distress Hotline:Immediate counseling for people affected by any disaster or tragedy: 1-800-985-5990

 How You Can Be a Part of the MPA Disaster Resource Network

  • Would you like to be part of a network of psychologists who are willing to help people in desperate need?
  • Do you have a few hours available each month to work pro bono with families who have been identified by the Red Cross as needing psychological assistance?

MPA is working closely with the Regional Disaster Officer of the American Red Cross by providing both information about disasters and volunteers who will be available to offer counseling and support to individuals and families. And you can be a part of the MPA effort to provide professional caring and short-term counseling to people who are in the midst of a crisis. 

If you would like to have an informal conversation to learn more about the Disaster Mental Health Red Cross volunteer program before initiating the process on the website, you may contact Helen Ostien, Disaster Mental Health Region Lead for Michigan, at [email protected] or 517-881-0607.

If you are considering the opportunity to be an emergency responder willing to lend a hand to individuals and families, fill out MPA's Disaster Response Committee Form to become more involved.


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