Helping survivors cope after a disaster

Environment and climate change

Notes to broadcasters

This program is intended to help people reflect on, acknowledge, and cope with their feelings following any kind of disaster. It includes testimonials from a family, an elderly person and a relief worker; all have survived an earthquake. You can use this program as it is, or adapt it to include events that are more familiar to people in your audience.

Survivors of disasters may feel isolated from their communities. They may feel a sense of loss and personal vulnerability, and a range of other physical and mental effects. After a disaster, it is important to inform survivors that most of their thoughts and feelings are normal, and to stress the importance of returning to work, school and other parts of their usual routine. They should also participate in healing ceremonies, therapy or other community rituals and services to help them recover.

The psychological and social effects experienced after a disaster vary in different cultures, and the words used to describe survivors’ experiences may be very specific to the culture (see notes at end of script). In some cultures, expressions of trauma are forbidden or discouraged. People may have scientific or spiritual ways of explaining events. Try to learn about local symptom patterns and the local idioms that are used to express distress and other feelings. You could start by discussing this topic with a community health worker, who might be able to refer you to other sources of information. You can help your audience by adapting this program to include local traditions and practices for expressing and healing from trauma and grief.

Communities must work together to provide outreach to survivors. In your radio programs for survivors of natural disasters:

  • Encourage relief workers, teachers, health workers, religious and community leaders to contribute information for broadcasts, and to participate in on-air discussions.
  • Involve as many local people as possible, including survivors, in the rebuilding and recovery efforts.
  • Interview farmers about how farming and farming practices changed for them after a disaster and how they feel about the changes.

Further program suggestions:

  1. Help your children cope after a disaster.
  2. How to identify signs of stress in your family and yourself after a disaster.
  3. Interview a health worker or counselor about signs of grief and stress after a disaster. Follow up with questions from listeners who are experiencing such symptoms.




Farmer Uri’s wife
Elderly woman
Relief worker


How do people cope with disasters? You are about to hear some personal experiences from people who have survived a disaster – an earthquake. The earthquake shook a region not far from the capital city. It caused landslides in the mountains. Many roads, schools, clinics and public buildings were destroyed. Some people were killed. And many others lost their homes.

First we’ll hear from Uri and Jagit, a young couple who survived the earthquake, along with their children.

Part 1: Uri and Jagit

Jagit and I live on the mountain. I was just coming in from the field when the earthquake hit. We had no time to think.

It was terrifying! The earth tumbled, and our house shook. A falling tree branch struck Uri on the shoulder. Stones and debris hit the children and me. We are very lucky that we got out alive.

When we got to the emergency shelter, it was in chaos. The children were crying.

For the first day, I was in pain. My head hurt and I was confused. I wanted to help and comfort my family, but I needed to lie down.

I couldn’t feel anything at first. I could not believe what had happened. We didn’t know if we would be able to return home again. My son Dani had nightmares and woke up screaming. Then, I became sad. My body seemed to hurt everywhere. I was afraid because I didn’t know what we would do or where we would go.

Many of our friends died. Whenever I thought about what happened, my heart pounded and my stomach hurt. I found it difficult to talk about my feelings.

After we left the shelter, we moved in with my cousin and his family.

Several months have passed since the earthquake, but we still get depressed. Our youngest daughter sometimes cries and says she does not want to go to her new school. At first, I was angry with her. We have so many other things to worry about. But I learned that children sometimes have the hardest time with these kinds of changes. My daughter is afraid that something terrible will happen to us while she is at school. We try to tell her that things will be okay. But we also listen to her fears.

On weekends, I go back to our village with a group of people to clean debris, and to discuss ways to rebuild what we have lost. We all want to start farming again.


Part 2:
Sara, a relief worker

Sara is a relief worker. Her job is very stressful. It’s also very important. The mental and physical well-being of the people who help is very important after a disaster. If relief workers are not healthy, they cannot help others.


As you can imagine, the first few days after the earthquake were difficult. I had worked in other emergencies, but this time there was so much devastation.
There were so many people to care for, and I had very little rest. After five days I started to feel weak, and once, I fainted. When I woke up I felt very guilty for not doing my job. My supervisor assured me that my reaction was normal. She told me to take regular breaks, and to talk to someone if I started to feel sick again. I was better after that.

I work a lot with children. I have met children with broken bones, and head wounds, and children who are lost and confused. Some children have seen their parents die. It is important to listen to a child’s concerns. Help children to talk about their fears and anxieties. Some are too young to express their feelings in words. They become aggressive or go back to old habits like wetting the bed. We ask parents to be patient with their children. The best thing to do, especially if they are going to be living in a shelter for a while, is to get children back into some kind of regular routine as soon as possible. We encourage both children and adults to express their sadness, their anger and their fears.


Part 3:
The needs of the elderly

: We should remember that the elderly have specific concerns after a disaster. They feel and act differently, and we may think it is because they are old – but really they are sad and scared. We are going to hear from Elda, an elderly woman, whose house was destroyed by the earthquake.


I lost everything. I lost the house I lived in for forty years, and all of my things.

My husband died six years ago and that was difficult.

In the earthquake, my whole life was washed away in an instant. I lost everything and I wanted to die. At my age, how could I ever re-build my life?

When they moved me into an emergency shelter, I refused to speak to anyone. So many strangers. And I don’t trust government people. My anger was as bright as a star.

I was hungry and weak, but the relief workers didn’t seem to know I was suffering. I felt that they couldn’t see me.

Three days after the earthquake, an old friend found me and asked me to come with her. She took me to meet many of the older people from my village – others who had survived like me. At first, I stood there like a stone. But my friend went to sit among them. Then, I just collapsed. The flood inside me opened up.

I went back the next day and sang with them. My friend said, “We have each other. We have stories and memories. And we can help with the relief effort. Don’t give up, Elda.”

And here I am, talking to you. I guess that means I have not given up.


Part 4: Different experiences, different feelings

: Have you noticed that a disaster affects people very differently?

Some people do not feel the full impact for months or even years later. Others find it difficult to feel safe again.

If you are a parent, maybe you feel that you could have done more to protect your children. You may feel angry at yourself and frustrated.

If you are a child, perhaps you are scared that something will happen to your parents when they go somewhere without you. Maybe you have nightmares or you feel pain in parts of your body when you think about the terrible event.

If you lost someone, you may miss the person so much that you dream of their return.

Perhaps you have a different role in your family now. Maybe you have moved to the city, where everything is different. Or you have taken a job for the first time. Adjusting to these feelings and changes takes time. Remember that feelings like these are normal.

The most important thing for survivors of a disaster is to help each other and get back to normal routines as soon as possible. Do what you can to help rebuild your home or community. For example, if your place of worship has been destroyed, help organize prayer or meditation meetings at someone’s home or a community hall. Join or start a support group.

If you feel overwhelmed by your feelings or are experiencing strange impulses or behaviour, talk to a friend, a health worker, or a religious leader. Get help when you need it. Remember, you are not alone.


– END –


  • Contributed by Belinda Bruce, Vancouver, Canada.
  • Reviewed by John H. Ehrenreich, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, State University of New York, College at New Westbury, New York, USA.

Information sources

Notes about culture-specific symptoms and language:
In many societies and cultural groups, traditional patterns of expression of emotional distress take the form of combinations of symptoms that have no exact equivalent in standard international categories of mental illness. The intermediate term response to disaster may take the form of one of the following “culture-specific disorders.” These are only examples and there may be different ways of expressing responses to stress in your locality. Also, remember that some people may think of these not as responses to stress, but rather as independent problems (e.g., problems caused by evil spirits).

Susto is prevalent among Latinos in the United States and among people in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Typical symptoms include appetite disturbances, inadequate or excessive sleep, troubled sleep or dreams, feelings of sadness, lack of motivation, feelings of low self-worth, and somatic symptoms.

Ataques de nervios is recognized among many Latin American, Latin Mediterranean and Caribbean Latinos. Commonly reported symptoms include uncontrollable shouting, attacks of crying, trembling, heat in the chest rising to the head, verbal and physical aggression, a sense of being out of control, and sometimes dissociative experiences, seizure-like or fainting episodes, and suicidal gestures.

Amok is recognized in Malaysia and, under varying names, in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. It is described as a dissociative episode characterized by a period of brooding followed by an outburst of violent, aggressive, or homicidal behaviour directed at people and objects, ending with exhaustion.

Dhat is a term used in India to describe a syndrome of severe anxiety, headaches and body aches, loss of appetite, hypochondriacal concerns associated with the discharge of semen, and feelings of weakness and exhaustion.

Latah , found under various names in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, involves hypersensitivity to sudden fright, often with apparently senseless and automatic repetition of the words or actions of others and dissociative or trance-like behaviour.

Khoucherang , found in Cambodia, includes excessive worry and rumination over past events.

Source: “Coping with disasters: A guidebook to psychosocial intervention,” by John H. Ehrenreich, 2001. (See full credit below.)