The last decade has seen a large increase in the occurrence of both natural and man-made disasters. The numbers are staggering. In 2003, in natural disasters alone, 200 million people were exposed to loss of life, damage to property and the trauma of survival. The United Nations works to meet these needs through its numerous agencies concerned with the welfare of children, prevention and treatment of disease, food relief, and care for refugees.
Because of the changing nature of conflict in man-made disasters, civilians are being directly targeted. In 2003, 45 million were in need of life saving assistance. In the past, the UN has been primarily concerned with physical survival. But it has become clear that although victims may recover from financial and material loss and physical disabilities, the psychological impact may also have serious and sometimes long-lasting effects. Because they are less obvious, these needs are often neglected.
In recent years the UN has begun to respond to the psychological effects of disasters. A relatively new concept, the idea of psychological first aid, is now being used in humanitarian relief work. Everyone knows that if someone is bleeding, the first effort is to stop the bleeding, and then, if needed, take them to a specialist. Similarly, if a person is in immediate need of psychological assistance it is not necessary to take them to a psychotherapist. Rescue workers are being trained to provide preliminary psychological first aid. The UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee has developed guidelines for the important initial responses to traumatic situations. These guidelines have been shared with and agreed upon by international humanitarian organizations.
Many of these detailed guidelines may seem obvious, but they are sometimes overlooked. To note only a few: it is important in the aftermath of high stress situations to promote calm and treat people with dignity; to give practical suggestions; to help people to help themselves; to offer accurate information about the disaster or trauma; and perhaps most importantly, never to make promises that may not be kept.
Psychological first aid can be very valuable because individuals often view their own traumatic stress response as a personal weakness rather than a natural and appropriate response. It is very important for the person who is helping to give the victim a realistic view to promote the empowerment which can be invaluable in recovery.
The UN’s humanitarian tasks have grown enormously. Its many agencies work closely with international humanitarian organizations. To strengthen the response to emergencies and disasters, in 1991, the General Assembly created an Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In addition to fundraising, coordinating the work of many UN agencies and international humanitarian groups, OCHA’s role is to provide leadership through effective and systematic crisis management, while placing humanitarian issues in the forefront.
Another new and innovative program just getting off the ground uses space technology (SPIDER) for information services on disaster management with universal access offered to all countries and interested organizations.
A US program of psychological first aid has been developed by the American Psychological Association—the Disaster Response Network. This is an innovative program creating a national network of psychologists with training in disaster response, who volunteer assistance to relief workers, victims and victims’ families after disasters of all kinds, both natural and man-made. More than 2500 members nationwide volunteer through their relationship with the American Red Cross. Members who receive some training have volunteered more than 24,000 days in the past 14 years helping the Red Cross. Want to volunteer? Public Relations and Communications Practice Directorate 202-336-5898.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, President, National Service Conference of the American Ethical Union and Representative to the UN,
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU Representative to the UN.