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The Importance of Disaster Behavioral Health: Why it Matters

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Date: April 01, 2024

From devastating wildfires, tornadoes, and mudslides to mass shootings and terrorist attacks, it’s almost impossible to turn on the news these days without seeing a report about another disaster. Natural and human-caused disasters are increasing in frequency, duration, and severity. In 2023 alone, the United States experienced 114 federally declared disasters, including 28 separate weather and climate disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damages. These disasters can have a deep impact on affected people and communities, especially when multiple disasters have occurred in the same area.

This increase in frequency and severity might feel overwhelming, given the emotional toll caused by each disaster. However, there are steps people can take to more effectively cope or recover – whether they are a survivor, the loved one of a survivor, an emergency responder or behavioral health provider. Along with the stress people feel when they are directly impacted by these events, hearing about disasters can also increase stress. April is National Stress Awareness Month, and many of the tools used in disaster behavioral health focus on stress reduction and mental health promotion.

Why Disaster Behavioral Health Matters

Disaster behavioral health recognizes the unique ways mental health and substance use supports should be provided to people and communities immediately after a natural or human-caused disaster. This field of behavioral health has developed over decades and is growing rapidly. It uses evidence-informed and evidence-based strategies and interventions to support recovery of all those who are affected and mitigates long-term negative behavioral health consequences following a disaster. A cornerstone of disaster behavioral health is Psychological First Aid (PFA), which are actions anyone can learn to help someone in distress.

At an individual level, understanding responses to distressing events can help people cope more effectively with feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and support a path to recovery. At a broader level, this knowledge can help responders and behavioral health providers ensure a more compassionate and effective response.

The Role of Disaster Behavioral Health

Once basic needs are met, survivors may go through a process of identifying, labeling, and expressing their emotions while developing coping and resilience building strategies. Disaster behavioral health providers support survivors through this process, primarily by:

  • assisting in examining and acknowledging their situation and their emotional reactions to the disaster;
  • educating about common reactions, such as duration of reactions and signs of the need for professional behavioral health services;
  • addressing any immediate mental and emotional crises and subsequent psychological or substance use conditions; and
  • reviewing their options for the best behavioral health supports and connecting them with other individuals and community resources that may help improve their situation.

These services also may involve helping survivors access natural supports in the community that existed before, and will continue after, the disaster - such as faith-based and peer support groups. In addition, disaster behavioral health helps survivors regain a sense of control and provides referrals to intensive behavioral health services, if required.

SAMHSA’s Role in Disaster Behavioral Health

SAMHSA is a leader in the field of disaster behavioral health. SAMHSA strives to ensure that our nation is prepared to respond to the behavioral health needs that follow disasters or emerging incidents by providing guidance and expertise in preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. For example, states can utilize SAMHSA’s technical assistance and training to develop all-hazards disaster behavioral health plans, while local healthcare providers, first responders or even parents, caregivers and the general public can look to SAMHSA for tips and strategies to support survivors at the community level. Here are a few examples of SAMHSA’s programs and resources:

Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program
This program supports recovery for survivors of natural and human-caused disasters through community-based outreach, crisis counseling, and other disaster behavioral health services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds and implements the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP) as a supplemental assistance program. SAMHSA works with FEMA to provide technical assistance, consultation, and training for state and local mental health personnel, and manages CCP grant administration and program oversight. States, U.S. territories, and federally recognized tribes are eligible to apply for a CCP grant through two programs:

The CCP’s key principles differentiate it from other survivor support programs in that services are delivered in accessible locations in the community, such as survivors’ homes, shelters, temporary living sites and places of worship, and no individual records or case files are kept. It’s anonymous, and crisis counselors work closely with community organizations so they can refer survivors to behavioral health treatment and other services.

One example of the program in action: Hawaii was able to receive both ISP and RSP grants to support community wellness and resilience efforts following the devastating wildfires in Maui last summer. As of January, the Hawaii CCP had served 2,794 Maui-based survivors through individual and family encounters, and 1,879 survivors through group counseling sessions.

Learn more about the program in the CCP Brochure (PDF | 226 KB).

SAMHSA Emergency Response Grants
In coordination with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, SAMHSA also has specialized authority to act immediately under emergency circumstances requiring a behavioral health response, when no other resources are available. This authority includes the provision of SAMHSA Emergency Response Grants, which support the implementation of new mental health and substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery resources in response to an emergency event. In recent years, for example, SAMHSA has awarded these grants to support recovery efforts following mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as to Maui, Hawaii, following the wildfires, and Ohio, following the freight train derailment and related chemical spill. This funding may be utilized for short or long-term behavioral health prevention, treatment and recovery services and disaster behavioral health crisis counseling to support survivor needs.

SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center
The SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) assists states, territories, tribes, and local entities with an all-hazards disaster behavioral health response planning that allows them to prepare for, and respond to, both natural and human-caused disasters. This center also supports collaboration among mental health and substance use authorities, federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations; facilitates in the sharing of information and best practices with the disaster behavioral health field. SAMHSA DTAC provides several newsletters, tip sheets, toolkits, guides and other resource materials, and staff can be contacted for consultation and training on a wide range of disaster behavioral health topics. There also are on-demand and archived training courses and videos for first responders and disaster behavioral health professionals.

Disaster Distress Helpline (DDH)
SAMHSA also leads the effort for the first national hotline dedicated to providing year-round disaster crisis counseling. DDH is a toll-free, multilingual, crisis support service available 24/7 to all residents in the United States and its territories who are experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters, including survivors of disasters; loved ones of victims; first responders; rescue, recovery, and relief workers; clergy; and parents and caregivers. The helpline is available in English, Spanish, American Sign Language (ASL), and more than 100 other languages via third-party live interpretation services.

  • To contact the helpline, call or text 1-800-985-5990.
  • Español: Llama o envía un mensaje de texto 1-800-985-5990 presiona “2.”
  • For Deaf and Hard of Hearing ASL Callers: To connect directly to an agent in American Sign Language, click on "ASL Now" or call 1-800-985-5990 from your videophone. ASL Support is available 24/7.

SAMHSA’s Commitment to Expanding Disaster Behavioral Health Resources

Many Americans feel the impact of disasters in their lives – sometimes because their community, household, and loved ones are affected, or because news reports of these events feel overwhelming. A key aspect of resilience in these events is ensuring people have a sense that there is something they can do when these traumatic events occur. SAMHSA remains committed to promoting disaster behavioral health, and expanding the resources that everyone can use before, during, and after disasters to support recovery at the individual and community level.