Disasters and Crises: Challenges to Mental Health Counseling in the Twenty-First Century

By Saleh, Mahmoud A. | Education, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Disasters and Crises: Challenges to Mental Health Counseling in the Twenty-First Century


Saleh, Mahmoud A., Education


One of the latest and, perhaps, the most important roles counseling is facing today, and increasingly will face in the twenty-first century, is that of providing services in the aftermath of various crises and disasters. Providing mental health services to disaster and trauma victims has emerged as a much needed professional endeavor. The role of mental health counselors providing services in the aftermath of disasters and crises is a critical call today and, in all likelihood, will be a role that will be played even more in future.

It is imperative for the field of counseling to respond to the need for those experiencing psychological trauma as a result of disasters and crises. Counseling must respond to the increased need for a role of this type in the twenty-first century. Crises and disaster counseling is becoming a subspecialty within the broader field of counseling. Its importance must be verified by university preparatory programs for counseling and accreditation agencies need to respond by including this in their course-work and as a training requirement.

The response of mental health counseling as a field of study and individual mental health counselors' response to factors prior to, during and after disasters and crises, to meet the needs of the population at large and the individual person, is one of great importance today and will be increasingly so in the future. Psychotramatology, the study of psychological trauma and the factors before, during and following psychological trauma (Everly, 1993, Everly and Lating, 1995, Mitchell and Everly, 1995), presents one of the greatest challenges to the field of counseling in the twenty-first century.

Increasingly, worldwide mental health counselors are being called upon to provide services in the aftermath of disasters and traumatic crises, whether natural or man-made. Naturally occurring disasters include earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, fires and tsunamis. Man-made disasters include riots, war, ethnic cleansing, building/structural collapse, attacks on medical/food sources, chemical attacks/discharge, and space-related exploration.

A traumatic stressor is the threat or display of an act that is chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable in nature that persons view as putting themselves or those they love at risk of harm or injury. Thus, not only are the acts, themselves, causing psychological trauma, but the threat that they could occur is causing psychological trauma on a large scale to the many civilians who work in office buildings, ride the subways/buses/trains, attend public events, receive mail, and any other number of events or circumstances in which the average person finds himself on a daily basis.

This is causing people across the globe to view themselves as vulnerable. Perhaps, some of the greatest psychological trauma stems from man-created disasters and man's inhumanity to man. The latter is a man-created disaster and points to a tragic event made even more tragic because it may have been preventable, in contrast to an act of God.

Across the globe, civilians are exposed to psychological trauma as a result of experiencing the effects of disasters and crises, either firsthand or vicariously through the experiences of friends and family. The number of disasters and crises, together with the numbers of people experiencing them, and exposure through the media, psychological trauma and its rippling circles all create an atmosphere crying out for mental health response.

The primary victims are those directly involved. For each of these directly involved victims, there are other indirect victims who also suffer varying degrees of trauma. These include relief workers, loved ones involved in crisis/disaster, others in the immediate or distant community, and even those watching or listening to the media.

Recent literature has addressed the role of mental health counseling (Dingman, 1995; Shelby and Tredinnick, 1995; Freedy, Kilpatrick and Resnick, 1993; Rosse, 1993; Dyregrov and Mitchell, 1992; Donoval, 1991; Paton, 1990, Pennebaker and Beall, 1986). …

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