Increasing Preparedness for Psychosocial Response to Pandemic Disasters, Infectious Diseases, and Bioterrorism

Published by kt Tobin on

Guest post by Amy Nitza, Director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health

Our national politics today seem to respond only to military and ecological disasters at home and abroad. Epidemiological disasters and bioterrorism and our local and national responses to them – how they’re handled, with what consequences on the physical and mental health on our first response workers, and on our resources – deserves sustained attention. This year’s The Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) conference, Psychosocial Response to Pandemic Disasters, Infectious Diseases, and Bioterrorism, is an important opportunity for our region to increase its preparedness for this type of emergency.

We know high profile disasters draw attention to both the successes and failures of planning and response efforts; they are therefore an extraordinarily valuable source of ‘lessons learned’ to inform future responses. From 9/11 to today, much has been learned about how best to prepare for and support the mental health needs of disaster survivors. IDMH, an affiliate of The Benjamin Center, was created to advance the field of disaster mental health by building on the hard-won expertise of those who responded to disasters with significant impact, from 9/11 to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, to the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, to name a few.

Even as these lessons were being learned, New York was being struck by several high profile public health threats including SARS, Avian Flu, H1N1, Ebola, and the Zika Virus. On our SUNY New Paltz campus, the recent mumps outbreak caused sufficient disruption to provide a glimpse of the potential impact of an outbreak of a more serious disease or the use of a biological weapon.

Public health disasters including pandemics, infectious diseases, and bioterrorism present a set of challenges for preparedness and response that are distinct from other types of disasters. Even when no citizen is infected, the fear of an outbreak and the preparation for a response may impact individuals and communities in significant ways. Several aspects of this kind of disaster make their effects more insidious and preparation for them more challenging.

For example:

  • The invisible nature of the threat often induces anxiety and fear among a broad section of the population.
  • Individuals may not know if they have been infected for days or weeks.
  • People exposed or who are perceived to be exposed may face stigma.
  • Distrust of leaders and messages and susceptibility to rumors often leads to resistance or refusal to follow leaders’ recommendations.
  • Individuals presenting with somatic stress symptoms may overburden an already taxed healthcare system.
  • There is a huge risk and burden to healthcare workers who face infection themselves along with the guilt and fear of bringing illness home to their families.
  • Public safety measures including quarantine, shelter in place, and travel restrictions have a tremendous psychological toll.

As opposed to other types of high profile disasters, there is not necessarily an immediate impact from this type of threat on public perception and awareness. The truly global nature of these threats are not easily recognized as not all parts of the world, or even a community, are affected at the same time.  Moreover, because these are health emergencies, they require a different command structure and working relationship between emergency management and health professionals than in other types of disasters.

This year’s IDMH conference, Psychosocial Response to Pandemic Disasters, Infectious Diseases, and Bioterrorism, is an important opportunity for our region to increase its preparedness for this type of emergency. The conference is sponsored by the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, and is a one-of-a-kind event that brings together emergency management, health, and mental health personnel from around the state in order to increase response efficacy and reduce responder and community stress. The conference features world class presenters who will address the psychological aspects of these complex public health emergencies.

The conference will be held on April 7, 2017 in the Lecture Center at SUNY New Paltz.  Registration is offered at no cost to participants. Free continuing education credits are available for New York Social Workers and Mental Health Counselors.

Conference registration is available here:

To find out more about the Institute for Disaster Mental Health, click here:


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