DISASTER, MENTAL HEALTH AND RESCUING MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS

AMIN A. GADIT

Abstract


The human beings have a certain threshold to cope
with the adverse life events which depends on the
strength of coping abilities which are a part of
personality make-up and augmented by effects of
environment, type of up bringing and related social
circumstances to which exposure has occurred during
the various stages of life cycle. The neurochemistry
does have an important part to play and of special
mention is the stress related hormones, which play an
effective role in helping the individual to withstand
the jolts of life. The more one is exposed to
adversities the better sensitization leading to relative
indifference is acquired that leads to some
psychological strength which can help in maintaining
emotional equilibrium in times of severe stress.
Human beings build new learned behavior on top of
bio-genetically predetermined templates. Brain
plasticity makes humans extremely sensitive to
environment which can have major health-related
pathogenic effects. Most adverse mental health
consequences of disasters may, therefore, be
attributed to our immense ability to learn, remember,
and re-shape behavior on the basis of new-including
catastrophic-experiences. Medical doctors fall under
the category of those who deal with illnesses,
casualties and emergencies. During the process of
training and until assuming the full role as medical
practitioners they would have developed adequate
psychological strength, which helps in addressing the
problems of the patients. However, there are
circumstances where there is an encounter with
natural disasters which is characterized by severe
disruption in ecological and psychological systems
exceeding the coping capacity of the individuals and
communities,1 this can be nerve wrecking and may
have serious effects on the psyche of even the
rescuers. Recent disaster in Pakistan, came
unexpected and brought in heavy magnitude of
destruction which affected the people both physically
and psychologically while causing a tremendous
amount of fear and uncertainty among those who
were not directly affected by this disaster. Print
media reported the contributions made by mental
health professionals and others in helping the victims
coming to terms with the consequences of the
disaster but the important issue which needs attention
here is about the direct care givers, many of whom
were affectees and at the same time were required to
attend to the medical needs of thousands and
thousands of victims. As an individual, the doctors
also fall in the parameter of other human beings when
it comes to their personality make up, psychological
strength, personal sensitivities and previous personal
social and psychological issues. The issue of
“secondary traumatic stress” which currently is not
recognized as a clinical disorder2 may produce
symptoms among medical rescuers like: hyper
arousal, intrusive symptoms, emotional numbing,
anxiety and depression along with “compassion
stress” which includes helplessness, confusion,
isolation, secondary traumatic stress symptoms
ultimately leading to a state of exhaustion and
dysfunction.3 There is also a possibility of developing
“vicarious traumatization” which is a feature
developing in therapeutic workers helping trauma
survivors affecting: relationship with meaning and
hope, intelligence, will power, sense of humor, ability
to protect oneself, memory, sense of connection to
others, self tolerance, cognitive reactions, and cause
physical symptoms like: tension, fatigue, edginess,
difficulty sleeping, bodily aches, change in biological
needs, etc, which are associated with behavioral
changes like: becoming judgmental of others,
becoming cynical or angry, becoming over involved,
developing rigid boundaries, heightened
protectiveness, avoiding social and work contacts.
Studies4, 5 have shown the incidence of PTSD (post
traumatic stress disorder) among the rescuers upto
the magnitude of 14%, the other serious outcome is
in the form of depression which is noted to be about
40%, acute stress disorder develops mostly among
young and single, 16% of the rescuers may develop
anxiety disorder and substance abuse. It is worth
noting that risk for PTSD is four times than the
general population.6 Reports indicated that in the
current circumstances doctors are also vulnerable to
depression in the background of 6% prevalence of
clinical depression in Pakistan.7 There is also a risk of
precipitation of psychosis subject to genetic
vulnerability. There is evidence that the immune
system gets compromised and open avenues for many
physical illnesses to manifest apart from the social
decompensation.8 However, in minority of cases the
rescuing physician may emerge as a changed person
with positive attributions to personality acquiring
great emotional strength, becoming more humane and
the transformation into a refined person.
It is utmost important to address the mental
health issues among the general doctors who are
involved in rescue efforts and therapeutic
relationship. Who should help? The mental health
professionals who are trained in emergency
J Ayub Med Coll Abbottabad 2005; 17(4)
psychiatry can be of help but we have to keep in
mind the extreme dearth of psychiatrists, lack of
training in crises psychiatry and the fact that all the
mental health professionals cannot and should not get
involved as it is important to address the personal
sensitivities and fitness apart from having adequate
insight into the different psychotherapeutic issues.
The role of religious workers appreciating the
importance of spiritual model of treatment and help
from allied mental health professionals is also
important. Camp type services result in futility; hence
long-term follow up is desirable. It is also essential
that the mental health professional is well versed with
CISD and EMDR techniques and has insight into the
role of pharmacological interventions in such
situations.
Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD)9 is
a brief, structured, intervention technique used
immediately or shortly after traumatic event that
attempts to assist participants in a group setting in
cognitively and emotionally processing their
experience. CISD is now a part of a comprehensive
spectrum of techniques called critical incident stress
management (CISM) which promote emotional
health through verbal expression, cathartic
ventilation, normalization of reactions, health
education and preparation for possible future
reactions.EMDR (eye movement desensitization
reprocessing)10 can be an effective part of de-briefing
session. The physicians response to mass casualty
must address the high volume of patients with
anxiety reactions and somatic symptoms likely to
present for care, supportive interventions include
fostering a sense of safety and efficacy, connecting
patients with communities and services, and helping
patient talk about the trauma, in the future, early
pharmacological interventions may prove to be
effective.
At site, it is useful for the rescue doctors to
develop self therapeutic strategies in order to build
psychological strength and prevent mental stress and
its associated complications for example: developing
“buddy” system with co-doctor, mutual
encouragement and support, frequent time out,
staying in touch with family and friends, ventilation
of emotions and feelings, physical exercise, yoga,
meditation, adequate nutrition and remaining in
groups whenever possible.
The American Psychiatric Association
(APA) has formed a committee on psychiatric
dimensions of disasters and has produced guidelines,
which is an important reading especially for mental
health professionals.11 Pakistan has suffered for a
long time the consequences of terrorism and man
initiated disasters, which have caused significant
mental health morbidity, and the current calamity has
added much more for the enduring capacity of the
nation as a whole. As it is vitally important to address
the issues related to mental health of the medical
practitioners dealing with the rescue work and
treatment, the government should devise strategies,
which can look into this matter in a beneficial way in
order to prevent the mental health morbidity among
the healers. The medical practitioners at their end are
required to be equipped well for the disasters in terms
of further strength building and coping emotionally
with mass casualties and hence have to liaise with
organizations dealing with the issues in disaster
preparedness and training and to acquire adequate
insight into the bio-psycho-socio-spiritual models of
both treatment as well as prevention.

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