Post-disaster Social Work

A social work response to disasters should empower the community to make decisions to meet the needs of all community members. Impact of disasters and a post-disaster social work approach are outlined.


This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Definition


A disaster is technically defined as a situation or event that overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request at the national or international level for external assistance; an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction and human suffering. Disasters can also be “slow-onset”, e.g. drought and famine, and desertification caused by land clearing (Harms & Alston, 2018).


Some Impacts of Disasters

Stanke et al. (2012), in a study of the impact of flood events on mental health, suggested a flood can cause stress that continues for a long time after the water recedes. Disasters can lead to bereavement, economic problems for families, behavioural problems in children, increased substance use and/or misuse, and increased domestic violence, as well as exacerbating, precipitating or provoking people’s existing problems with their mental health.


Howard et al. (2018) found disaster exaggerates existing social inequalities and disproportionately affects particular groups. Women, people 65 years and over, children under five, those with low income, people with a disability and culturally and linguistically diverse groups struggle to prepare for disasters, find it difficult to respond after the disaster has passed, and take much longer to recover than less disadvantaged groups. These groups, because they had no or uncertain networks to rely on for assistance were impacted by disasters in four ways.

  1. Lack of historical and community knowledge often resulted in less information about impending risks, a reduced capacity to access disaster information and/or construct and implement a disaster plan, and poor knowledge about escape routes and location of evacuation centres.

  2. Socially isolated people did not have family, friends and neighbours to fall back on. Low income added to this isolation—less ability to prepare and maintain properties, purchase disaster related equipment such as torches, keep adequate first aid supplies, shortage of food. Furthermore, socially isolated people had fewer reliable networks within a close proximity reducing their capacity to respond and recover.

  3. In a disaster, or pending disaster situation, socially isolated people are very reliant on the capacity and compassion of locals, who are also stretched by the emergency conditions.

  4. Because women often rely on men to assist in disaster situations, women without a partner or relatives close-by may have to take responsibility for disaster preparedness, preventative maintenance at home, organising insurance, and attending to practical issues such as torches, gas bottles, and evacuation plans.

Lock et al. (2012) identified 11 categories of secondary stressors that may impact on people in a post-disaster situation. If interested, this material is available via the reference in the supporting material section at the end of this document.


Alston, Hargreaves and Hazeleger (2018), compare the response to disasters to that of people experiencing grief and loss. They point out that people involved in environmental disasters experience tangible and intangible losses. Tangible losses include damage to infrastructure. Intangible losses are far less evident and include loss of life, health, culture, identity, self-determination, influence, opportunities, safety, sense of belonging, self-esteem, social cohesion, and dignity. Loss of “place” in particular can lead to a complex loss experience—both the tangible loss but also loss arising from the erosion of “self” and the destabilised connection to “place” that the disaster symbolises. This is even more important for Indigenous people.


In the critical postdisaster period it is easy to focus on tangible losses—the loss of houses, infrastructure, and services, and the need for safety, security, and attention to basic needs—and to ignore the intangible losses suffered by people in a disaster. Intangible losses can weigh down people and take an extended time to recover from. Alston et al. compare disaster recovery to the difference between a race and a marathon: “It’s a marathon not a race … but it feels like a race at the start”. How people manage the enormity of the losses shapes their capacity to cope and ultimately adapt both personally and as a community. Through acknowledgement of the significance of these losses, postdisaster social workers can assist people to build a “new normal”, and to restore a sense of place, community, and cohesion. Further, they can help to restore dignity and build trust across various layers of family, community, and governance structures (Alston, et al., 2018).


Post-disaster Social Work

While much of the following material is based on the 2018 edition of the Australian Social Work journal (issue 4), a NATO report (2008), examining the psychosocial care needs of survivors of disasters, summarised the disaster response in quite practical terms. The report suggested:

  • services should recognise people’s inherent resourcefulness but also their need for informally provided support and responsive services.

  • the public should be actively engaged in delivering disaster responses.

  • the emphasis of interventions should be on empowering communities and people who are affected.

  • the public must be trusted with accurate information that is provided regularly by credible persons.

  • services that offer psychosocial and mental health interventions should be made available to support survivors’ resilience and to complement personal and collective resilience and coping.

  • it is important to take a positive and cooperative stance to responding effectively to enquiries from the media.

  • avoiding the corrosive effects or rumour is also important.

Social work roles and responsibilities postdisaster include counselling, social assistance, crisis intervention, solution-based therapeutic approaches, advocacy, mediation, problem-solving, and cross sector collaboration (Cooper, Briggs, & Bagshaw, 2018). Community resilience has become an increasing focus of disaster response, i.e. community-led recovery rather than top-down, “command and control” efforts (Stanke et al., 2012). Therefore the focus of social worker intervention in a postdisaster situation is the (re)building of wellbeing: addressing the intangible loss of identity, social cohesion, belonging and a sense of community as well the tangible loss of homes and infrastructure. Importantly, “the community” that might be defined in a particular disaster context must be directly involved in the decision making for recovery. Furthermore, these communities of people must reflect the full diversity of any affected population, must meet the needs of all community members (Harms & Alston, 2018).


Post-disaster social work can be complex, multifaced and lengthy because survivors often need to take time to make decisions, to absorb the nature not only of their tangible losses but also the intangible qualities of loss—their loss of community, of place, of the taken-for-granted certainties of life. This can be at odds with the focus of service providers who are focused on urgently addressing the impacts of the disaster. Therefore social workers need to understand the immediate, medium-term, and long-term stages following disasters and the need to work at the pace of survivors, continually checking with survivors. Social workers need to “work with” people rather than “do to” people: draw on local knowledge, working culturally appropriate and community-conscious ways, understand the difference responses of men and women, and understand that people take a long time to come to terms with loss (Alston, Hargreaves & Hazeleger, 2018).


Harms et al. (2018) suggest disaster response can result in posttraumatic growth in three ways:

  1. Connection with other people (families, communities and formal organisations), an important protective factor identified in post disaster literature. Examples include strengthened relationships, forming new connections, and discovering personal strengths.

  2. Development of new skills or rediscovery of old ones.

  3. Creative ways, e.g. artworks, creative writing, speech making.

In a 2021 study involving 811 participants, conducted three to four years after the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria Australia, Harms et al. (2021) identified stressors and supports. Participants identified the biggest stressors as

  • managing rebuilding processes (30%)

  • managing their own mental health (20%)

  • memories of the Black Saturday fires (15%)

  • their concerns for family members, especially in terms of family members mental health (10%)

  • coping with perceived injustices, e.g. allocation of resources and funding (10%).

The most useful supports were

  • family (33%)

  • friends and neighbours (30%)

  • formal organisational support (28%)

  • tangible rebuilding and reestablishment resources (26%)

  • their community (20%).

The complexities of family life postdisaster were central. The key finding from this study was the central role of family both as a stressor and as a support. Family breakdowns, family violence, and concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of each other were reported, as were experiences of enhanced family support and care.


Harms et al. (2021) suggest implications for practice:

  • Disaster recovery efforts require the simultaneous management of physical rebuilding and human processes.

  • Optimising the rebuilding and reestablishment processes should be a high priority.

  • Families, friends, and neighbours are underestimated resources in postdisaster recovery.

  • While families are key, there is a need to better support supporters.

  • Mental health issues, including traumatic memories and anger at perceived injustices appear to maintain and prolong disaster impacts. Therefore empowering formal and informal family supports is critical.

  • Given the complex interplay of the same factors operating as both stressors and supports, interventions are needed that maximise the positive dimensions of these factors. To manage this complexity, multiple frameworks are needed to guide disaster recovery.

Cooper, Brigs and Bradshaw (2018) alert social workers in disaster areas to the possibility of secondary trauma. This can arise in two ways: (i) as shared trauma when both social worker and service user have experienced the same event, and (ii) double exposure when social workers are exposed to danger while simultaneously responding the needs of their communities. The authors outline the personal, professional and ethical issues that can arise for social workers in these situations – a summary is provided in the supporting material section at the end of this document.

Practice Approach


Reflecting on the above material, it appears social workers faced with a disaster situation have two overarching responsibilities:

  1. They should address the needs of individuals and communities in a spirit of “working with” rather than “doing to”, all the while being aware of the potential impact of secondary trauma on themselves.

  2. They should recognise the impact of the tangible and intangible loss on people, i.e. the immediate, medium and long-term loss impacts.

In practical terms social work will involve:

  • Working with individuals to promote posttraumatic growth (i.e. connecting people, encouraging skill rediscovery and/or development, and enabling creativity), where a number of practice models outlined elsewhere on this website (accessible via the Contents page) may be used such as

Grief and Loss

Problem solving

Solution-focused therapy

Crisis intervention

  • Working with communities to build community and social cohesion remembering that “the community” must be directly involved in the decision making for recovery. Furthermore, these communities of people must reflect the full diversity of any affected population, must meet the needs of all community members. The “Community Development” topic available via the Contents page of this website will give additional guidance about social work with communities.

  • Advocacy

Emerging Minds (n.d.) has a Community Trauma Toolkit with resources to help and support adults and children before, during and after a disaster or traumatic event. It has information for six key audiences including parents and caregivers, general practitioners, and health and social service workforces. Links to a number of resources from this toolkit follow:


Resources for Social Workers https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/toolkits/community-trauma-toolkit/health-and-social-service-practitioners/


Supporting children’s disaster preparedness https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/a-guide-for-health-and-social-service-workers-supporting-childrens-disaster-preparedness/


Talking to kids after terrorism and violent events https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/talking-to-kids-after-terrorism-and-violent-events/


Psychological First Aid tip card https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/psychological-first-aid-tip-card/


Supporting children’s mental health following a disaster:

Common reactions to trauma and loss by children:

Trauma responses in children:

The last five entries on this page - https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/toolkits/community-trauma-toolkit/health-and-social-service-practitioners/page/3/ - have links to videos on disaster response. There are videos on other topics on the two pages that follow.


Resources for Parents https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/toolkits/community-trauma-toolkit/parents-and-caregivers/

Supporting Material

(available on request)

Alston, M., Hargreaves, D., & Hazeleger T. (2018). Postdisaster social work: Reflections on the nature of place and loss. Australian Social Work, 71(4), 405-416. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2017.1409776


Cooper, l., Briggs, l. & Bagshaw, S. (2018). Postdisaster counselling: Personal, professional, and ethical Issues. Australian Social Work, 7(4), 430-443, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2018.1492622


1. Personal

  • Emotional vulnerability, caused by earthquakes and aftershocks, created anxiety for everyone.

  • The challenge of loss—many practitioners lost individual or family income from employment, struggled with loss of city infrastructure (buildings lost, no place to work).

  • The new normal: a different way of living—arguments with insurance companies, keeping personal documentation on one’s person, learning from clients about ways of coping, coping with a stressful work environment and personal stress as well.

2. Professional

  • Mobilising the postdisaster volunteer workforce—it was difficult for organisations to find counsellors and for counsellors wanting to help as there was no coordination around this; there was no capacity for retired counsellors to assist as they were unregistered; whether registration covered the situation was unclear.

  • Working in earthquake trauma is different—Practice was eclectic and pragmatic, generally in single sessions, with focused condensed assessments. The workers felt they were dealing with anxiety, grief, and needs for practical assistance. Many thought disaster counselling was a specialist area of practice that should be a required part of professional courses.

  • Flying by the seat of our pants—workers had no background information about the clients, no agency records, brief referrals from doctors, referrals to mental health services were unavailable as they were swamped.

  • Self-care and support—no supervision sessions initially but these were established after several weeks.

3. Ethical

  • A duty to help was very explicit. Boundaries were transgressed at times. Privacy was a major difficulty because of use of ad hoc spaces.

Emerging Minds. (n.d.). Community trauma toolkit. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/toolkits/community-trauma-toolkit/


Harms, L. & Alston, M. (2018). Postdisaster social work. Australian Social Work, 71(4), 386-391. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2018.1495241


Harms, L., Abotomey, R., Rose, D., Woodward Kron, R., Bolt, B., Waycott, J., & Alexander, M. (2018). Postdisaster posttraumatic growth: Positive transformations following the Black Saturday Bushfires. Australian Social Work, 71(4), 417-429, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2018.1488980


Harms, L., Gibbs, L., Ireton, G., MacDougall, C., Brady, K., Kosta, L., … Bryant, R. (2021). Stressors and Supports in Postdisaster Recovery: Experiences After the Black Saturday Bushfires, Australian Social Work, 74(3), 332-347. https://doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2021.1874029


Howard, A., Agllias, K., Bevis, M., & Blakemore, T. (2018). How social isolation affects disaster preparedness and response in Australia: Implications for social work. Australian Social Work, 71(4), 392-404, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2018.1487461


Lock, S., Rubin, G. J., Murray, V., Rogers, M. B., Amlôt ,R., & Williams, R. (2012). Secondary stressors and extreme events and disasters: A systematic review of primary research from 2010-2011. PLOS Currents Disasters, Oct 29, Edition 1. doi: 10.1371/currents.dis.a9b76fed1b2dd5c5bfcfc13c87a2f24f. Retrieved from https://currents.plos.org/disasters/index.html%3Fp=4597.html


NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2008). Psychosocial care for people affected by disasters and major incidents: A model for designing, delivering and managing psychosocial services for people involved in major incidents, conflict, disasters and terrorism. Retrieved from https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/majorhazards/ressources/virtuallibrary/materials/Others/NATO_ Guidance_Psychosocial_Care_for_People_Affected_by_Disasters_and_Major_Incidents.pdf


NATO suggested the Strategic Stepped Care Model of Care for disaster situations. It has six main components. Components 1 and 2 apply to responsible organisations/governments. Components 3 and 4 apply to those involved in immediate relief. Components 5 and 6 apply after the initial impact has passed and most people are recovering from the disaster.

Stanke C., Murray V., Amlôt R., Nurse J., & Williams R. (2012). The Effects of Flooding on Mental Health: Outcomes and Recommendations from a Review of the Literature. PLOS Currents Disasters, May 30, Edition 1. doi: 10.1371/4f9f1fa9c3cae. Retrieved from http://currents.plos.org/disasters/index.html%3Fp=1947.html