Psychiatric Aspects of Technological Disasters
Ante Lundberg Washington, DC Commission on Mental Health Services
Azara L. Santiago-Rivera State University of New York at Albany
Disasters can be natural, such as floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes, or caused by people, like nuclear plant accidents and toxic spills. The distinction is not always clear because we live in a complex, interdependent world whose natural rhythms affect us and are in turn affected by our activities in sometimes unpredictable ways (UNEP, 1994). For instance, the number of casualties and amount of destruction caused by an earthquake depend on the number of people living nearby, on the strength of the buildings, bridges, and freeways in an affected area, and so on. Natural disasters can also lead to technological accidents: The 1993 Mississippi River floods dislodged and released buried hazardous waste. But disasters that are primarily technological are different in important ways from natural ones and their psychological impact is different as well. Technological disasters can be local, for example, toxic spills from railway accidents or leaking stores of hazardous substances in some poorly designed disposal site ( Green, 1993). Or they can be regional such as the Chernobyl accident and even global, such as the thinning of the ozone layer caused by the use of ozone depleting chemicals.
Some people who have been exposed to fires, hurricanes, and floods develop psychological sequelae such as major depression, chronic anxiety, and posttraurnatic stress disorder (PTSD). Current thought among disaster relief workers holds that most people will suffer only transient effects from a natural disaster or "people reacting normally to an abnormal situation" ( Flynn, 1995). Appropriate intervention usually consists of outreach and