Richa Madaan

Richa Madaan

How Natural Disasters Affect Mental Health 

  Jan 17, 2024
Reviewed by Ayushi Jain

Key Takeaways

  • Individuals who are involved in a natural calamity often struggle with mental health before, during, and after it takes place. 
  • There are several phases that a person goes through, some of which are the Pre-disaster phase, heroic phase, disillusionment phase, etc.
  • The last is the reconstruction phase, which can usually last for years. 
  • Remember that the struggles for mental health are never a one-size-fits-all. 

The term “natural disaster” speaks for itself; after all, the word “disaster” is right there in the title. As a result, it’s safe to say that those involved in the calamity often find themselves struggling from a mental health perspective before, during, and after it takes place. 

Each of these stages is defined by several phases, and the mental states experienced throughout the process are incredibly complex. 

As a result, many charities work to respond to natural catastrophes globally, via the likes of a Somalia flood appeal, a Türkiye earthquake appeal, a Pakistan flood appeal, and so much more. 

Before help can be administered, we must first understand the feelings that are being experienced by those who have been involved in the mishaps. 

While mental health struggles are never a one-size-fits-all concept, detailed below is a generic overview of what is typically mentally experienced by individuals throughout each stage of a natural calamity. 

Pre-Disaster Phase

First up is the pre-disaster stage, which can be as short as a few seconds if the tragedy occurs completely unexpectedly. On the other side of the coin, if there has been a known threat for some time, this stage can last for upwards of a few months. 

Regardless of how long one finds oneself in this phase, one often finds themselves feeling fear and uncertainty. It’s at this point that they feel most vulnerable to the elements and that they have no way of controlling what could happen. 

Typically, their biggest worry is that they have no means of protecting themselves and their families. 

Impact Phase

Generally speaking, the impact period is the shortest of all. This is when people are subject to various intense emotions, including disbelief, confusion, panic, shock, and any other emotion that could correspond with a catastrophe. 

After this intense burst of feelings, most people then feel an overwhelming sense of self-preservation or family protection. 

Do You Know?
Some of the common emotional and physical health effects of disasters include distress, shock, guilt, disillusionment, anxiety, flashbacks, mood swings, depression, problems in sleeping, etc. 

Heroic Phase

These feelings of self-preservation and family protection often lead individuals into the heroic phase. As adrenaline pumps through their body, they often seek to rescue others; however, their risk assessment tends to be impaired at this point. 

Typically, this adrenaline runs out within a quick time frame, meaning that this period passes relatively quickly. 

Honeymoon Phase

For a few weeks after the calamity, individuals often feel an overwhelming sense of community, which is otherwise defined as the honeymoon phase. 

It’s at this point that affected groups are likely to receive the most help, as the community tends to be at its most optimistic at this time. 

Disillusionment Phase

The disillusionment phase is one that can last anywhere from months to years after a calamity, and it can be extended even further by triggers. This episode can then lead to feelings of abandonment, exhaustion, stress, discouragement, and other negative mental health outcomes. 

Unfortunately, this can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse. From this, it often becomes clear that an increased need for relief services is required, as it’s this limit of relief services that often triggers negative feelings within those affected. 

Climate change and mental health

Reconstruction Phase

The final stage is the reconstruction period, which usually begins around a year after a disaster occurs; however, it can last for years. This is a point of recovery, in which those affected by natural calamity establish a new normal. 

It’s at this time that they start to rebuild their lives while grieving the life they once had. Recovering from a natural incident is no easy feat, but it’s something that all manner of people have to experience. 

There is a possibility that some of the individuals may feel the effects stronger than others. For instance, children’s vulnerability depends on their cognitive level. It may cause academic difficulties and behavioral problems in the long term. 

People who have a pre-existing mental illness or some prior trauma are most likely to suffer the most miserable outcomes such as PTSD, depression, and many more. The impact also differs on the amount of exposure to the calamity. 

Take an example of a community that has suffered directly from a flood. Their livelihood is affected by the situation, which is most likely to last for some time.  On the other hand, people who live far by and are only dependent on the services that are offered by the community will experience the least impact.