Disasters and trauma

About trauma  

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

A few examples of events, series of events, or circumstances include:  

  • experiencing or witnessing abuse,  

  • experiencing or witnessing disasters, 

  • childhood neglect, 

  • experiencing or witnessing violence, and 

  • systemic racism and poverty.  

SAMHSA offers resources for first responders and individuals who have experienced a disaster, including a “disaster distress hotline” that’s always available. 

Trauma in disasters 

Frontline communities that encounter disasters are managing many layers of trauma. They are holding years of harm, neglect, and discrimination in their daily lives in addition to the turmoil of surviving a disaster, which likely also involves harm, neglect, and discrimination. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most devastating examples of trauma for the Black community.  

Here are some examples of how trauma can show up in disaster planning, response, and recovery: 

  • not feeling like a disaster planning process incorporates your life experience and validates your needs, 

  • waiting excessively long for help to arrive after a disaster, and 

  • not receiving recovery money from the federal government in the wake of disaster because you’re undocumented or because you are otherwise unable to meet the bureaucratic requirements.  

Disasters aren’t just individual trauma. They are also a collective trauma, impacting a large group of people at the same time. This makes healing more difficult since so many people are impacted, and each person’s needs will be different.  

Disasters also lead to many more cases of intimate partner violence and gender-based violence, another traumatic event. Frontline organizations serving survivors desperately need funding to support this uptick. Moreover, stable housing, healthcare, and sufficient funds to meet basic needs are crucial to helping people heal.  

The impacts of trauma  

Trauma has devastating impacts on a person’s life. As mentioned above, frontline communities hold stresses from years of harm, neglect, and discrimination. From Enterprise’s Framework for Healing-Centered Community Development, here’s what that can do to the body:  

“Research indicates that the exposure to race-based stresses (real or perceived) and the witnessing or experiencing racial violence result in emotional burnout and psychological trauma for Black people. The cumulative indicators of what can be referred to as racial trauma can manifest as fatigue, lack of focus, hypervigilance, avoidance, nightmares, suspiciousness, and somatic expressions such as headaches and heart palpitations. These symptoms and many more are parallel to those clinically outlined for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with one significant exception. While PTSD is triggered by the experience of a single or distinct collection of events, racial trauma involves ongoing and continuous injuries due to exposure (direct and/or vicarious) and preexposure to race-based stress. The effects of this trauma impact all people, regardless of racial identity.”  

Research shows that this and other forms of trauma are passed down from generation to generation. This fact has deep consequences for our public health systems and our collective well-being as a society. 

When there is a disaster, survivors are also managing losing family, friends, houses, irreplaceable personal belongings, community, and cultural spaces, all when local services are disrupted. This has devastating short- and long-term effects.  

Addressing trauma at every stage  

Infographic that shows the six principles of a truma informed approach including safety, peer support, collaboration, trust, empowerment, and awareness of historical, cultural, and gender issues.

To work with frontline communities, it's important to understand trauma and its impact on the individual and the collective. Equally important is to incorporate this understanding into every part of the disaster process from planning, to response, to recovery.