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Factors that may impact on a person’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster

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Factors that may impact on a person’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster

  • Geographic and/or social isolation
  • Limited access to transport, requiring assistance to relocate to safer areas or access resources
  • Physical ability
  • Cognitive ability
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions
  • People who have previously experienced trauma
  • Chronic illness
  • Socio-economic disadvantage
  • Limited support networks
  • Carers of older people or people with a disability, particularly if carers are older and financially disadvantaged themselves
  • People who are experiencing, or are at risk of, family violence
  • People who are homeless or at risk of homelessness
  • People with existing health conditions which may be exacerbated by the effects of a disaster, for example loss of power, loss of water, difficulties in accessing health services, difficulties in accessing medicines or other supplies
  • Limited financial means which impacts on insurance for losses, or limited savings to rely on in the event that their income is impacted due to interruptions in employment.

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Children and young people

Children and young people exposed to disasters will react in different ways. Some will return to their usual functioning and settle back into routines within a few weeks, however some may continue to experience difficulties and need extra support to cope and adapt.

Help for children and young people

It is important to be aware of changes in a child or young person’s thinking, behaviour, level of activity, physical health or emotional state so they can be linked in with supports early.

The impact of a traumatic event and the length of time it takes to recover will be different for every child and depends on many different factors, including:

  • The nature of the traumatic event
  • Individual characteristics of the child such as their age, developmental stage and temperament 
  • Whether there has been significant disruption to the child’s life, or whether the child has been able to return to their usual routine
  • The impact that the event has had on the child’s main support systems and how those around them are coping.

Common reactions to a traumatic event may include:

  • Changes in their play, drawing, dreams or conversation 
  • Regressive behaviour – behaving younger than they normally do 
  • Difficulty managing big emotions
  • Wanting to stay close to a parent or caregiver
  • Fear and worry about the safety of themselves and others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Aggression or irritability toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomach-aches
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviours, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in activities that compromise their safety.

Read more: Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network

Disasters and the media

In recent times there have been wide-scale disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, floods and bushfires that have occurred within Australia and overseas. These events have significantly affected the lives of many people and have been widely reported on the television, in newspapers and social media. Such large-scale traumatic events can indirectly affect children and young people’s sense of safety, feelings of vulnerability, guilt and helplessness. It is important to keep in mind that exposure to media coverage of these events can affect even very young children who might be considered too young to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.

Read more: Disasters, the media and your child factsheet

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Older people

Whilst older people may be considered more at risk during disasters, they also have many strengths that contribute to their ability to prepare for, cope, adapt, and help others during times of crisis, including:

  • Knowledge and wisdom
  • Coping skills
  • Self-efficacy
  • Optimism
  • Previous experience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Community connections.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that there are some factors that may increase older people’s risk in disasters, such as:

  • Health conditions including chronic illness or other medical needs, physical mobility, vision and hearing impairment
  • Community mobility
  • Potential for low literacy levels
  • Language barriers among some older migrant populations, which can impact on access to resources and information  
  • Potential loss of confidence, influenced by declining health, mobility and independence
  • Social and/or geographic isolation
  • Potential for being in a caring role for others with higher support needs

Key things to consider when including older people in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery include:

  • Ensure that older people are actively engaged in all aspects of personal, family and community planning and decision making
  • Ask older people what they have learned from their experiences through life, what served them well in previous emergency events, and any strategies they feel would be helpful to consider in the local community
  • Whilst previous experience can increase awareness and contribute to preparedness for future events, this is not always the case. Ask rather than assume. 
  • Provide timely, accurate and practical information about potential or current risks, and resources that are available to support the persons health and wellbeing
  • Ensure all information relating to disaster preparedness, response and recovery is accessible to people with different needs, including: language differences, low literacy, hearing impairments, vision impairment, cognitive impairment
  • Encourage older people to discuss their plans and support needs with family and friends, and with organisations they may already receiving support services from
  • Work in partnership with other agencies that may be involved in supporting older people, including: Home Care Package providers, Meals on Wheels, Royal District Nursing Service (RDNS) and Red Cross

Read more:  What do older people’s life experiences tell us about emergency preparedness? (PDF 131KB)

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Aboriginal Communities

Aboriginal people’s views of mental health and social and emotional wellbeing are very different to those of non-Aboriginal people. This influences the way that Aboriginal people experience and recover from disasters and therefore any recovery programs and services need to be delivered in a culturally appropriate way.

It is important to recognise that urban, rural and remote Aboriginal communities will each have differing cultural practices, beliefs and needs which will vary between Aboriginal language groups.

Social and emotional wellbeing

Social and emotional wellbeing is a term used by many Aboriginal people to describe the social, emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of a person. It recognises that the connection to culture, land, family, spirituality and community are important to people and can impact on their health and wellbeing.

Mental health is a term commonly used mainly by non-Aboriginal people to describe how people think, feel, cope with and take part in everyday life. The best way to understand these different terms is to think of mental health and mental illness as a part of a person’s social and emotional wellbeing.

Links between physical health and social and emotional wellbeing

It is important to keep in mind the relationship between social and emotional wellbeing, mental health and physical health. While even painful emotions such as sadness, anger and anxiety are appropriate and helpful at times, experiencing an excess of these emotions can lead to both mental and physical illness. It is therefore important to use a holistic wellbeing focus when providing health care to Aboriginal people.

Communication

Many Aboriginal people do not speak the standard Australian English as a first language. When spoken, English may differ in dialect and the meaning of words can vary with family and community influences. Although a person might converse in English, this does not necessarily mean the person comprehends English in its entirety. If English proficiency is low, do not assume the person is illiterate, poorly educated or of low intelligence. Aboriginal people tend to speak in narrative form, using stories or by talking around the topic to illustrate a point. Direct lines of enquiry can be confronting for some people and may not be conducive to meaningful communication.

Where possible, the use of accredited interpreters is recommended.

Read more:  Aboriginal Mental Health Clinical Practice Guideline and Pathways – A culturally appropriate guide for working with Aboriginal mental health consumers.

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Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities

Many Culturally and Linguistically diverse communities demonstrate great resilience, often having a range of experiences and skills in dealing with emergencies.

However, they may also have increased vulnerabilities for experiencing high levels of stress and grief and require culturally sensitive support to assist in their recovery from a disaster.

A person’s response and recovery from the disaster may be influenced by:

  • Previous trauma experiences, even if previous events have been very different to the disaster
  • Access to family and social support networks
  • Access to information on relief and recovery arrangements may be limited due to language and/or cultural differences
  • Engagement with support services may be limited by language and/or cultural differences
  • Impacts of human-led disasters which may have involved people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, even if the event was in a different geographic location. People may have concerns about being stigmatised and targeted themselves

Gender and disaster

Gender issues are known to compound the damaging effects of disaster on survivors. Increased gender and disaster knowledge and subsequent improved emergency planning and response will improve the health and wellbeing of women and men affected by disaster across Australia.

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Disability

It is important to consider the needs of people with disabilities in all aspects of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. People with physical, psychosocial and/or intellectual disabilities may be particularly marginalised and more at risk during and after disasters due to:

  • Physical access barriers – such as steps or narrow walkways which impact on access to buildings, facilities and services. Access to necessary mobility equipment, including difficulties re-charging batteries for electric wheelchairs or other equipment during power outages.
  • Attitudinal barriers – negative assumptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities, or stigma against those with disability and their families
  • Communication barriers – information and resources not being available in accessible formats such as Braille, sign language, pictures or simple language. Access to adaptive devices including difficulties re-charging electronic communication devices
  • Service continuity – If people with a disability are reliant on support services to assist them with evacuating or accessing resources in the community and those services themselves are impacted by the disaster and are unable to provide continuity of support

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