Working with those affected by disaster: advice for Psychologists

Wednesday 9 March 2022

What a time we are having.

With bushfires, floods, droughts, storms and pandemic, we have had to draw upon deep reserves to navigate tough times. As psychologists, we have high expectations of our own coping capabilities and mostly do well in this territory. But if I am being honest, we are prone to succumb to the ‘do as I say and not as I do’ tribe when demand is high. We all know that you can’t draw from an empty cup, but for me the first thing in tough times that tends to go out the window is my own self-care. Having the headspace to intentionally prioritise keeping my wellbeing routines polished can be a challenge. But I know that I can’t anchor my clients if I am feeling untethered myself. Take some time to think about your own thoughts and feelings during these times of change and uncertainty. Being able to ‘make meaning for self’ of turbulent times allows us to speak with others with assurance and calm, not to mention to be able to work for as long as we want and as well as we invest in our own wellbeing. 

We have been experiencing an increase in the frequency of natural disasters. The disasters that have impacted Australia are mapped on the Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub here: Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub , look for ‘disaster mapper’. This site also houses the Handbook Collection which provides guidance on the national principles for ‘all things disaster’. You can look at Australia’s emergency management arrangements, guidelines for working with disaster affected communities, flood emergency planning and one of my favourites, the Disaster Resilience for Young People Handbook. Working in a disaster context across the before, during and after time phases is enhanced by an understanding the systems of emergency management and national, state and territory legislation and operational policy. 

I understand that the cascading disasters we have been experiencing leads to many of us wanting to offer our assistance. Working in disaster mental health, like all other areas of psychology, requires being informed and working within your skill set. AAPi has provided access to the Mental Health Academy training for Disasters, if you would like to further  develop your knowledge and practice for disaster mental health consider looking at ACATLGN Disaster Resources and  Phoenix disasters training and here Community Trauma Toolkit if you are working in schools look here Child Trauma reactions: Teacher Manual or Managing Trauma (schools) . Of course, if you haven’t come across the wonderful Birdie’s Tree books you’ll enjoy seeing them here: Birdie's Tree . Finally, to gain a direct perspective of experience of disaster to inform your work, you might prefer to listen to a podcast or two. I recommend After the Disaster ABC podcast and Doing Disasters Differently Renae Hanvin.

Finally, Atle Dyregrov, Bill Yule and Magne Raundalen (well respected psychologists with a wealth of knowledge and experience in trauma, disasters and children) have put together a wonderful guide to talking with children about the current conflict in the Ukraine. Be it children, adults or young people that your work focuses on, this resources helps with framing, thinking and making meaning, far too often we overlook the worries of children because we either put it in the uncomfortable box or we hope that they are unaware and unaffected, this document assists with finding the words to journey with children in their understanding and feelings.  

So be kind to yourself, be informed in your work and may the world become a little gentler in the very near future.

Michelle Roberts 

Director, The Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network 

Updated:  11 December 2023/Responsible Officer:  Director ACATLGN/Page Contact:  Director ACATLGN