Types of Disasters

Learn about the different types of natural and human-caused disasters and their impact on behavioral health.

Natural and human-caused disasters affect thousands of people each year. Major adverse events such as these have the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life and physical destruction. They are often unexpected and can leave whole communities in shock.

People who live through a disaster can experience emotional distress. Feelings of anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses to disasters before, during, and after the event. Many people are able to “bounce back” from disasters with help from family and the community, but others may need additional support to cope and move forward on the path of recovery. Anyone can be at risk, including survivors living in the impacted areas and first responders and recovery workers.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are large-scale geological or meteorological events that have the potential to cause loss of life or property. These types of disasters include:

Severe storms and floods are the most common types of natural disasters reported in the United States. These meteorological events are occasionally preceded by presidential “emergency declarations” requiring state and local planning prior to the event, such as evacuations and protection of public assets. Disaster Distress Helpline staff are available to speak to those who call or text before, during, and after a natural disaster.

Human-caused Disasters

Examples include industrial accidents, shootings, acts of terrorism, and incidents of mass violence. As with natural disasters, these types of traumatic events may also cause loss of life and property. They may also prompt evacuations from certain areas and overwhelm behavioral health resources in the affected communities.

In the aftermath of the tragic loss of life that occurred on September 11, 2001, the feelings of loss of security and well-being—arguably the most crucial ingredients for leading a happy, healthy life—dramatically affected the citizens of the United States. Disaster Distress Helpline staff are also trained to respond to calls or texts related to these types of disasters.

Other Incidents of Mass Trauma

Infectious disease outbreaks, incidents of community unrest, and other types of traumatic events can also bring out strong emotions in people.

The outbreak of Ebola affecting several countries in West Africa, with limited reported cases in the United States and other countries, may lead to feelings of anxiety and confusion, even to the point where it can interfere with one’s regular routine. Community upheaval, such as that seen in Ferguson, Mo., can also impact emotional health. News reports and the 24-hour news cycle can make people even more anxious when these kinds of events occur.

The Disaster Distress Helpline provides immediate crisis counseling to people affected by traumatic events. SAMHSA also has a number of resources for people affected by the Ebola outbreak and incidents of community unrest, including:

The SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) also helps states, territories, tribes, and local entities deliver an effective mental health and substance abuse (behavioral health) response to disasters and traumatic events. Learn more about these issues and find more disaster-related resources at Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery.

Last Updated: 09/24/2015