Preparing and Responding to
Technological and Ecological Disasters
Philip J. Lazarus, Ph.D.
Florida International University
Frank Zenere, Ed.S.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Ted Feinberg, Ph.D.
National Association of School Psychologists
Retired
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Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill 2010
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WHAT HAPPENS
Crisis and trauma throw people so far out of
their range of balance that it is difficult to
quickly restore equilibrium.
Crisis reactions may be precipitated by either
“acute or chronic” stress.
Acute stress is caused by sudden, arbitrary
and often random event.
Chronic stress occurs repeatedly over time
with each recurrence further challenging a
person’s adaptive resources.
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THE CRISIS RESPONSE:
THE SHORT-TERM CRISIS REACTION
The normal human response to trauma follows a
similar pattern called the crisis reaction; It occurs
across gender, ethnicity, age and culture.
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THE PHYSICAL RESPONSE
Exhaustion
Physical arousal associated with the “fight or flight”
syndrome cannot be prolonged indefinitely and results
in physical exhaustion.
Chronically high anxiety levels can lead to feeling
“burned out”
Caregiver Reaction
Production of chemical “oxytocin”, primarily in women,
may produce a “Tend and Befriend” reaction as an
effort to protect children or loved ones.
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THE EMOTIONAL REACTION
Our emotional reactions are heightened by our
physical response
Stage 1: Shock, disbelief and denial
Stage 2: Cataclysm of emotions including
anger/rage, fear/terror, sorrow/grief,
confusion/frustration, self blame/guilt
Stage 3: Reconstruction of equilibrium – the
emotional roller coaster that seeks balance
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KEY CONCEPTS OF
DISASTER MENTAL HEALTH
No one who sees a disaster is untouched by it.
There are two types of disaster trauma (a)
individual and (b) collective.
Most people pull together and function during and
after a disaster but their effectiveness is
diminished.
Disaster can bring people together, enhancing
community cohesion, solidarity, and unity.
Disaster stress and grief reactions are normal
responses to an abnormal situation.
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KEY CONCEPTS OF
DISASTER MENTAL HEALTH
Many emotional reactions of disaster victims stem
from problems of living caused by the disaster.
Disaster relief procedures have been called “The
Second Disaster.”
Most people do not see themselves as needing
mental health services following disaster, and will
not seek out such services.
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KEY CONCEPTS OF
DISASTER MENTAL HEALTH
Individuals may reject disaster assistance of all
types.
Disaster mental health assistance is often more
“practical” than “psychological” in nature.
Disaster mental health services must be uniquely
tailored to the communities they serve.
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KEY CONCEPTS OF
DISASTER MENTAL HEALTH
Mental health staff need to set aside traditional
methods, avoid the use of mental health labels,
and use an active outreach approach to intervene
successfully in disaster.
Survivors respond with active interest and
concern.
Sensitivity to cultural factors, unique regional
characteristics, and individual differences
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KEY CONCEPTS OF
DISASTER MENTAL HEALTH
Interventions must be appropriate to the phase of
the disaster.
Support systems are crucial to recovery.
Minimize economic (e.g., occupational, income),
physical (property, possessions), social (e.g.,
family, friends), personal (e.g., personal beliefs),
psychological (e.g., identity), and emotional losses
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THE EXXON-VALDEZ OIL SPILL
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LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE
EXXON-VALDEZ OIL SPILL
On March 24, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez
ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William
Sound, Alaska.
Largest oil spill in North America. Approximately
42 million liters of oil was released into valuable
commercial fishing grounds.
13 communities affected.
Long term effects: Ecological effects for a decade
or more.
The disaster is just the beginning of a cascading
set of challenges and stressors.
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THE EXXON-VALDEZ OIL SPILL:
AFTERMATH
Greater exposure to the spill was associated with
greater disruptions in psychosocial functioning
The "dose-response" relationship:
The greater the dose (exposure to the spill) the greater
the negative effects
One-year post spill:
20% had generalized anxiety disorder
9% had post-traumatic stress disorder
17% had major depression disorder
Alaskan Natives displayed elevated risk for
experiencing psychosocial problems
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THE EXXON-VALDEZ OIL SPILL:
AFTERMATH
One year post-spill:
Declines in social relationships with
friends, neighbors, coworkers
Increases in drug and alcohol abuse
Increases in domestic violence
Increases in physical health problems
Family support buffered the effects of
the spill on psychosocial functioning
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THE EXXON-VALDEZ OIL SPILL:
AFTERMATH
Fishing communities were hit the
hardest
Loss of revenue totaled $155 million
Total collapse of local herring and
salmon fishing industry
The “income loss spiral”
Greater losses (e.g., discretionary income,
employment, having to sell possessions)
were associated with disruptions in
psychosocial functioning
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THE EXXON-VALDEZ OIL SPILL:
AFTERMATH
Long-term effects on fishing
communities:
6-years post spill:
23% of men and 13% of women had
clinically significant anxiety
39% of men and 20% of men had
depression
34% of male fishers and 40% of female
fishers had a high number of PTSD
symptoms
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HEALTH EFFECTS
OF OIL CONTAMINATION
Acute symptoms:
Skin irritation, itchy eyes, scratchy throat,
headaches, dizziness, chronic pain, nausea,
respiratory problems
Increases in genotoxicity (i.e., cell
poisoning)
Associated with higher cancer rates
Endocrine problems
Alterations in hormone levels
Blood toxicity
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DIFFERENCES BETWEEN
TECHNOLOGICAL/ECOLOGICAL
AND NATURAL DISASTERS
Lighting a fire vs. heating up an oven
Trauma associated with natural disasters is
more acute but effects generally dissipate more
quickly
Trauma associated with
technological/ecological disasters is less acute
but effects may exist for decades
Technological/ecological disasters have a longterm “corrosive” effect on communities
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DIFFERENCES BETWEEN
TECHNOLOGICAL/ECOLOGICAL
AND NATURAL DISASTERS
People can struggle over whom to blame for
causing a technological/ecological disaster
Cleanup and relief efforts often are hampered by
slow legislation and litigation—extends the
recovery period for victims
Victims often become suspicious and cynical
Authorities and community leaders often are
blamed, scapegoated, or criticized for being
unresponsive
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DIFFERENCES BETWEEN
TECHNOLOGICAL/ECOLOGICAL
AND NATURAL DISASTERS
Instead of volunteering to help with
recovery efforts, people may expect
companies to do all the work
This slows down the recovery
Disaster response is not lucrative for “guilty”
companies
Similarly, people may not donate needed
funds or resources because they believe
the company should pay
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TRAUMA AND LOSS
Trauma is accompanied by a
multitude of losses
Loss of control over one’s life
Loss of faith in one’s religious/spiritual
belief system
Loss of trust in other people
Loss of worldview – of fairness and justice
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CONSERVATION OF
RESOURCES
Any event resulting in an actual or
perceived loss of resources, or a lack of
expected resource gain, produces stress.
These resources may include:
Objects (boat, house, car)
Personal characteristics (self-concept, selfesteem, identity)
Relationships (marriage, friendships)
Energies (credit, money, social capital)
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CONSERVATION OF
RESOURCES
Resource loss is the strongest
predictor of psychological distress
following a disaster
The more depleted resources
become, the worse the adjustment
Depletion across multiple domains is
most problematic
Depletion can be merely anticipated
to cause significant stress
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RESOURCE LOSS IN
TECHNOLOGICAL/ECOLOGICAL
DISASTERS
Changes in work, having to sell
possessions, income loss, and investment
without gain (i.e., taking on additional work
to avoid income loss) is associated with
anxiety and depression
Negative changes in relationships are
associated with declines in physical health
and depression
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IMMEDIATE EFFECTS
OF AN OIL SPILL
Help with problem-solving and exploring other
possibilities
Assist with coordinating services to meet basic
needs
Adapted from Weber and Lord (2010)
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COPING AFTER AN OIL SPILL
Maladaptive coping is associated with
anxiety, depression, and PTSD
Avoidant coping is associated with the
worst long-term (6 > years) distress
Adaptive coping is protective,
especially:
Seeking social support
Cognitive restructuring
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EFFECTS OF DISASTERS
ON CHILDREN
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TRAUMA AND REGRESSION
Trauma is often associated with regression to
an earlier stage of development – mentally and
physically
Individuals may do things that later seem
childish
Examples include loss of humor, diminished
impulse control, free floating irritation, assuming a
fetal position, referring to authority figures such as
parents, law enforcement or administrators as
“mommy or daddy.”
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TRAUMA AND REGRESSION
Individuals may feel childish; Examples
include:
Feeling small
Wanting someone to take care of them
Feeling weak
Feeling as if things are out of control as if
one were a child again
Using language that is highly simplified
Withdrawing and seeking nurture
Being afraid to sleep alone or of the dark
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INFLUENCES ON CHILDREN’S
REACTIONS TO DISASTERS
Factors that influence children’s reactions include:
Dislocation from home or community
Level of parental support
Pre-existing risks: previous traumatic
experience or mental illness
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TRAUMA REACTIONS:
PRESCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
Simulate the spill in play
Fear eating and drinking due to
contamination concerns
Anxiety and withdrawal
General behavioral problems
Regressive behaviors: Thumb
sucking, bedwetting, clinging to
parents
Sleep disturbances
Fear of dark
Loss of appetite
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TRAUMA REACTIONS:
ELEMENTARY-AGE CHILDREN
Extreme withdrawal
Disruptive behavior
Difficulty paying attention
Outburst of anger, irritability, aggression
Somatic complaints (stomach aches headaches)
Anxiety and depression
Emotional numbing
Nightmares, sleep difficulties
School avoidance
Fears
Of dark
Of being left alone
Of being separated from family
That something bad will happen to family
That they caused some part of the disaster
That they failed to prevent some part of the disaster
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TRAUMA REACTIONS:
MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL-AGE
CHILDREN
Sleeping and eating disturbances
Agitation
Irritability, anger, acting-out behavior
Delinquency
Physical complaints
Poor concentration
Depression and anxiety
Withdrawal
Conflict with caregivers and teachers
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LONG-TERM CRISIS REACTIONS
Not all victims of trauma/crisis suffer significantly
from long-term stress reactions.
Many victims may continue to be reminded or reexperience some degree of crisis reactions over a
longer period of time.
These crisis reactions are often associated with
“trigger or kindling events”, environmental cues,
that remind the person of the trauma. These cues
can bring back the intense emotion and physical
reactions of the original trauma.
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LONG-TERM CRISIS REACTIONS
Trigger Events vary with different
victims/survivors but may include:
Sensing (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting)
something similar to what one was acutely aware of in
the original incident
Anniversaries of the event
Proximity of holidays or significant “life events” to the
trauma/crisis
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STUDENTS WHO ARE AT HIGH RISK
Had a high level of exposure
Suffered significant loss
Are grieving for victims
Relocated following the disaster
Had preexisting anxiety disorders or mental
health problems
Had inadequate parental support
Are separated from their family
Used inadequate coping mechanisms
Experienced previous trauma
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LONG-TERM CRISIS REACTIONS
SUMMARY:
Victims of trauma/crisis may experience
stress reactions for years.
Long-Term Stress Reactions are natural
responses to terrible events.
Unresolved stress reactions may result in
several forms of post traumatic behavior.
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RECOVERY FROM TRAUMA
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RECOVERY FROM TRAUMA
Many people live through trauma and are able to
reconstruct their lives without additional help
20/60/20 Rule:
About 20% of those experiencing trauma will adapt and
return to normal functioning within a short period of time.
About 60% will experience some type of stress reaction
that will, for a period of time, impair functioning.
About 20% will suffer extensive impairment in one or
more of their life functions.
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RECOVERY FROM TRAUMA
Recovery from immediate trauma is often
affected by the following factors:
The severity of the incident and level of crisis
reaction
The ability to understand what happened
The person’s pre-crisis stability
The nature and breadth of one’s support system
Access to help
The degree to which one’s experience is validated
by culture and others
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RECOVERY FROM TRAUMA
Recovery issues for victims include:
The victim gaining some meaningful perception of control over
the event
Working out an understanding of the incident and, as needed,
a redefinition of worldview and values
Re-establishing a sense of future and personal goals
Re-establishing a sense of meaning, integration of the event
into a personal narrative
The degree to which an individual can prevent the loss of
important tangible objects, roles, attachments, and feelings of
connectedness and intimacy
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INFLUENCES ON RECOVERY
FROM TRAUMA
Family
Faith
Friends
God
Prayer
Church
Clergy
Support Groups
Peers
Purpose
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INFLUENCES ON RECOVERY
FROM TRAUMA
Teams and clubs
Sports
Siblings
Activities/hobbies
Music
Art
Writing/journals
Pets
Teachers
Medical doctors
Psychologists and counselors
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INFLUENCES ON COPING
Parent’s Reaction and Family Support:
Parent’s adjustment is an important factor in children’s
adjustment
Relocation:
Relocation is associated with higher levels of ecological
distress, crowding, isolation, and social disruption
Coping Style:
Coping responses influence the process of adapting to
traumatic events
Using blame and anger as a way of coping may create
more distress for children following disasters
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HELPING CHILDREN AFTER DISASTER:
RECOMMENDATIONS
Meet and greet students
Remain calm and reassuring
Acknowledge and normalize feelings/reactions
Encourage expression about disaster-related
events
Promote positive coping and problem-solving
skills
Emphasize children’s resiliency
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HELPING CHILDREN AFTER DISASTER:
RECOMMENDATIONS
Establish/reinforce routines and expectations.
Provide opportunities for children to share their
concerns.
Involve children in activities that allow them to
make choices and resume a sense of control over
their environment.
Incorporate information about the disaster into
related subject areas, as appropriate.
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HELPING CHILDREN AFTER DISASTER:
RECOMMENDATIONS
Listen to and observe children’s behavior.
Be sensitive to the disruption that relocation may
cause.
Consider the developmental level and unique
experiences of each child.
Involve students in recovery-related
activities/projects.
Identify children at risk and make a referral to the
appropriate school or community-based resource.
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HELPING CHILDREN AFTER DISASTER:
RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS
How do I respond to students when they ask,
“Why did this happen?”
How can I help students with their lessons?
How do I assist students in understanding why
some families experienced losses while others
did not?
How do I help students deal with anxieties about
the future?
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SUPPORTING STUDENTS
AFTER DISASTERS:
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TEACHERS
Communicate with families regularly
Balance academics and social/emotional learning
Focus on students’ strengths
Help students become better problem solvers
Make note of lessons learned
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HELPING CHILDREN AFTER DISASTER:
SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS
Listen to your child’s concerns, anxieties and fears
– validate their feelings.
Offer realistic reassurances of safety and comfort.
Provide structure and routine in the home
environment.
Encourage involvement in family and community
recovery efforts.
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HELPING CHILDREN AFTER DISASTER:
SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS
Be aware of abrupt changes in your child’s
behavior; make appropriate professional contacts.
Provide factual information and talk in hopeful
terms regarding the future.
Be prepared to tolerate regressive and acting out
behaviors during the early post disaster phase.
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PREPARING CHILDREN FOR
NATURAL DISASTERS
Educate children about potential threats or
disasters in their community.
Take children’s fears seriously.
Provide important information about enhancing
personal safety.
Teach children specific precautions for each
disaster.
Explain to children when and how to seek help
(i.e., 911).
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KEYS TO RESILIENCE
Caring and loving family/friends
Ability to make/carry out realistic plans
Positive view of self/skills
Capacity to manage strong feelings/emotions
Positive view of the future
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RESILIENCE AND OIL SPILLS
Shield children, families, and community
members from exposure
Undo harm caused by exposure
Take action—become involved with local
relief and recovery initiatives
Promote environmentally friendly policies
and actions
Increases in eco-friendly beliefs, behavior,
and policies often follow
technological/ecological disasters
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Contact Information
For further information please contact
Philip J. Lazarus, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Director
School Psychology Training Program
Florida International University
Miami, Florida
33199
305-348-2725
[email protected]
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