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Family Reunification: Disaster Behavioral Health Response

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Effects of family separation

Human beings rely on social connections with other people to feel safe and secure in the world, and they are an important indicator of individual and community resilience. When families, friends, and colleagues are suddenly and unexpectedly separated from or unable to reach the people who matter most to them, they lose their sense of safety and predictability. They fear their loved one is in danger, hurt, or even died. This results in feelings of vulnerability, fear, hopelessness, and helplessness.

Not only do people experience extreme stress from being separated from their loved ones, but they also face the stress of surviving a disaster. These stressors can include loss of housing and belongings, a pet, or the ability to work, physical injury, financial instability, and changes in established routines. Any of these stressors can overwhelm a well-functioning person, but the combination of them can be devastating.

Even family members and friends who live outside of the disaster area will likely experience the stress and emotions described above if they cannot contact their loved ones for some time. They fear the worst. In addition, people who do not live in the impacted area are faced with the stress of not fully understanding what is happening in the area due to the rapidly changing disaster environment. The media can help provide information about the incident and situation. Still, they can also increase people’s stress by repeatedly showing graphic images and videos and focusing on the most dire and dramatic circumstances.


Children’s most important relationships are with their caregivers, whom they rely on to keep them physically safe, meet their basic physical needs, and create structure and routine. As a result, separation from their caregivers and loved ones can be intensely stressful and traumatic for them. A child’s age and cognitive and emotional development level will significantly impact on how he/she reacts to being separated from their caregivers. Children can have similar stress reactions to adults, but these reactions are often more intense. They may also show more physical symptoms of stress, particularly children with limited verbal skills. For more information about helping children cope with disaster, click here.

Disaster Workers

Witnessing and interacting with people under extreme stress can also be difficult for disaster responders. Like people impacted by disasters, most responders will experience short-term stress reactions before regaining their pre-disaster functioning level. In general, stress reactions are similar to and as varied as reactions experienced by disaster survivors.

Prolonged and repeated periods of exposure to other people’s stories and traumatic experiences, such as those separated from their loved ones, can lead to compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and burnout. The impact on the disaster responder goes beyond job-related behaviors and attitudes and may include:

  • Impaired ability to feel empathy toward anyone.
  • Impaired ability to relate to friends and family.
  • Loss of sense of vision or purpose in life.
  • Diminished creativity and sense of humor.
  • Depression, stress-related disorders, and some physical ailments.

Workforce health protection strategies may mitigate or prevent compassion fatigue. However, recovery typically requires more than a vacation or job position change for workers who develop compassion fatigue. Workers who appear to have or believe they have compassion fatigue are best advised to consult with their personal healthcare providers. Find additional information about disaster worker stress reactions at the National Center for PTSD.

Reunification: Disaster Behavioral Health Response and Resources

Local agencies: Any community planning for reunification should include all local agencies that can partner in response efforts. Such agencies, staffed by counselors, social workers, and other mental health providers, include hospitals, mental health agencies, social service agencies, independent living facilities, schools, colleges, and universities. Declarations of Emergency enable many governmental social service agencies to collaborate and share information normally considered proprietary and confidential; close collaboration can protect confidentiality while providing necessary cross-referencing or validation of needed information to help identify and track the missing on a need-to-know basis.

State Behavioral Health Systems: Each State mental health authority (i.e., the State Department of Mental Health) has designated disaster mental health coordinators who can engage local community mental health agency staff to assist with disaster response and community outreach. Building strong relationships before a disaster ensures greater facilitation and coordinated response.

Local Faith Communities and Disaster Spiritual Care Providers: Local communities of faith are uniquely equipped to provide healing and disaster spiritual care services. Local spiritual care providers and communities of faith are primary resources for post-disaster spiritual care. The trauma impact of disaster leaves many more invisible casualties than visible ones. Although reactions vary tremendously, many survivors are drawn to their faith traditions more strongly than they were pre-disaster. Having spiritual support available from the faith community helps many people find meaning and purpose following a trauma or catastrophic event.

Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD): Many communities have pro-actively established COADs, composed of representatives from governmental and non-governmental agencies, to enhance their communities’ ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. Additionally, each state has a VOAD, generally defined as a coalition of non-profit and faith-based organizations that respond to disasters.

COADs and VOADs often have established standing committees dedicated to disaster behavioral health response and/or emotional and spiritual care. Emergency management agencies may participate and, in some cases, may provide resources to support these organizations.

The depth of planning and organization, as well as the availability of disaster behavioral health resources on the local/county/community level, will dictate the ability of a State to manage its disaster mental health response without outside assistance. In states with active COAD and VOAD presences, these organizations may be included in emergency management plans and contribute resources and situational awareness to state and local emergency management agencies through appropriate organizational structures.

Additional Resources

American Red Cross (2012), Disaster Mental Health Handbook Disaster Services,

This Handbook presents the approved DMH interventions used to provide support both at your Red Cross chapter and on a disaster relief operation (DRO) that spans multiple affected chapters. You will use DMH interventions to support individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities and Red Cross workers across the continuum of disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

American Red Cross (2009), Taking Care of Your Emotional Health.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (January 2015) Coping with Disaster.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (January 2015) Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program.

National Disaster Interfaiths Network. Be a Ready Congregation Tip Sheets for U.S. Religious Leaders: Disaster Spiritual Care.

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) Resource Center.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

Young, B. H., Ford, J. D., & Watson P. J. (2007). Disaster Rescue and Response Workers. National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Our software-as-service Family Reunification Service (FRS) lets your organization better meet the needs of the people you serve.

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