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Disaster Relief Workers and First Responders. Mental Health

By Robbie Schneider

Expert: Eva Skinner-Regel, LICSW, M. Sc, M. Bioethics, Program Clinical Director with Health Tech Without Borders

Disaster Relief Workers and First Responders. Mental Health
Disaster Relief Workers and First Responders. Mental Health

The devastation caused by Hurricane Idalia, the Maui fires, and the Morocco earthquake prompted numerous first responders to provide humanitarian aid.


However, the intense strain of aiding others amidst the overwhelming circumstances of such crises necessitates that both local first responders and disaster relief workers prioritize their mental well-being. Failing to address mental health concerns can result in long-term psychological issues that hamper daily functioning.


Both disaster relief workers sent to help with the relief efforts and local first responders could face symptoms of acute stress disorder. If not addressed timely, it may evolve into graver issues like PTSD and substance misuse. While those deployed may face challenges reintegrating into their regular lives post-deployment, local responders might grapple with continuous direct and secondary trauma due to their continued presence in the affected areas.


“Responders deployed to assist others want to do good,” Skinner-Regel said. “They want to help others and are ready to take themselves out of where they normally live and go into a situation with limited resources, frequently facing human suffering and destruction of lives. They see people lose their lifestyle, and they cannot change the situation for the local people they meet during their deployment. They know they can’t get people back up to their baseline. This can affect their emotional and psychological well-being, which can result in depression and moral injury, eventually leading to burnout, similarly to what we are seeing in current post-pandemic healthcare.”

She stresses the importance of peer-to-peer support, post-work debriefing, and individual assessment of emotional well-being for all disaster relief workers and first responders, advocating for maintaining connections with colleagues. “Post-debriefing and connections with your colleagues could be an important part of the recovery process,” she said. “You are coming home to a normal life, and people don’t understand what you feel, what you’ve seen, and it’s important to have the opportunity to be understood. This work changes how we express ourselves and view life and how we view ourselves in life," she emphasized. First responders and disaster relief workers should choose the best options that work for them and their comfort level: therapy, peer-to-peer support, or debriefings that are preferably led by mental health professionals. For some, this can lead to re-triggering, so it is important to be aware of your symptoms and seek individual therapy if needed.


Symptoms signaling acute stress disorder, which some first responders and disaster relief workers might experience, include:

· Having distressing memories or flashbacks of the traumatic event;

· Persistent negative emotions like fear, anger, guilt or shame;

· Feeling emotionally detached from others;

· Having difficulty sleeping;

· Actively avoiding places, people, or discussions related to the traumatic event.


If you are experiencing any of these symptoms after a traumatic event, reach out to your healthcare provider or your NGO coordinator. If you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call for immediate help.


Skinner-Regel emphasized the need for first responders to care for their mental and physical health after a traumatic event.


“People who drop everything and fly to help others are a special kind of people,” she said. “But to continue to be empathetic, remember to allow yourself to restore yourself and continue to rehabilitate yourself.”



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