Mental Health in Disasters

On January 29, 2013, eight SORT students attended the quarterly meeting of the Medical Reserve Corps for DeKalb County. While our specific aim was to attend the Disaster Mental Health Training being held that night, the event was a great opportunity to meet some of the administrators and volunteers involved in the Medical Reserve Corps. This group responds to disaster situations throughout the state, and especially those in DeKalb County. Corps members help run activities in Points of Dispensing (PODS), which are set up to attend to basic medical needs, dispense supplies and medications, and perform immunization activities during emergencies. We learned a little about the system, how to become a volunteer, and how volunteers are activated in the event of an emergency.

The main agenda for the evening was the abridged Disaster Mental Health Training course led by Jeanette David, the Disaster Mental Health Services Coordinator for Georgia. Mental Health is a crucial issue during disasters, as so many people and families affected by the situation may have mental health needs. This includes people with long-standing mental illness, but, as Ms. David stressed, it really includes everyone involved. We focused on the basics of psychological first aid, which involves supporting people during a time of crisis and trying to help them draw on their own resources and resilience to cope. We learned some common symptoms to look out for, and how to categorize the effects of stress into physical, cognitive, emotional and interpersonal/behavioral symptoms. To truly illustrate these concepts, we took turns drawing a representation of a symptom, and having our peers guess what we were showing. Hopefully our emergency response skills will be better than our collective drawing skills!

Finally, we discussed the importance of attending to our own mental health as responders to an emergency. This is a really important concept for all of us to keep in mind. We stressed the importance of attending to our own mental health needs before helping others, using the metaphor of what they announce in an airplane as part of the safety instructions – please put your oxygen mask on before helping others. Often, emergency responders get so caught up in assisting with response and recovery that they neglect to take care of themselves, which can place both them and those they are helping at risk. As at our previous SORT meeting, we discussed the concept of “vicarious trauma,” wherein volunteers can become traumatized themselves by listening to horrific story after story of those involved in the disaster. It is important to recognize this and take a step back or a break when required.

Attendees received a certificate of completion at the end for the Disaster Mental Health Training. We had a great time networking with our community partners and hearing about their experiences!


Megan Cohen is a first-year SORT student and completing a dual degree in Medicine and Public Health at Emory.