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Lee Kem, Murray State University

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a presentation that Lee gave at the 2009 Region 3 Conference in Charleston, West Virginia in May 2009.

Lee Kem.jpgEach day, the news includes reports of disasters. Encarta (2009) defines a disaster as a damaging or destructive event that causes serious loss, destruction, hardship, unhappiness, or death. Therefore, a “disaster” can be anything from an ice storm, wreck, or tornado, to a school shooting. As advisors, it is important that we know the phases of disaster recovery and recognize typical behaviors and emotional responses in our advisees, co-workers, and ourselves.

College students often have little experience coping with disasters. This limited experience coupled with limited coping strategies and resilience can result in increased stress leading to academic problems, lowered mental health, and retention issues. Survivors of a disaster also face the danger of withdrawal and isolation, which adds to the stress level. In addition, survivors may turn to substance abuse or addictions e.g., games, Internet, Tweeting, or food, resulting in increased inability to concentrate and focus. Procrastination can lead to an increased sense of failure, isolation and withdrawal, and academic and retention issues.

Some disasters involve a  threat or warning phase (Mental Health Center of North Iowa, n.d.) when we have days or hours of advance warning. This leads to stress centered on preparation and anticipation of an impending event. College students may not have experienced any type of disaster, feel invincible, have delusions of personal invulnerability, and be reluctant to abandon personal possessions. Denial is common and can lead to a “this can’t actually happen to me” mindset. It can be very difficult to adapt the new frame of reference needed to cope with unusual events and there may be little preparation or fear. In other situations, such as an earthquake or school shooting, there may be little or no warning prior to the disaster.

When the disaster actually occurs, there are high levels of stress related to the threat to life, possessions, and the familiar. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and uncertainty are common. Those experiencing being trapped or confined can experience inescapable terror. Most individuals respond appropriately, but some may seem apathetic or respond in a disorganized or stunned way, and be unable to protect self or others (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009).

Immediately following the disaster is a time of altruism and heroic actions called the heroic phase (California Department of Mental Health, 2009. “I will save you, rescue you, and make everything okay again!” Emotions are very strong and direct but not always at the appropriate level of response based on the situation. Adrenaline is high, everyone wants to help save himself and others’ lives and property and prevent further losses (Mental Health Center of North Iowa, n.d.). Activity levels are high but productivity is often low. Individuals may still be stunned by the event and experience anxiety, denial, and fear. The family group, neighbors, and emergency teams are important resources (Scurfield, 2007). This period occurs prior to the event and can last up to a week afterwards.

Tunnel vision (Scurfield, 2007) occurs when the individual is very focused on taking care of daily tasks and survival needs of self and loved ones. The survivor can exhibit high levels of emotion or may suppress, deny, or push emotions aside as a way of dealing with strong feelings or intrusive memories (Scurfield, 2007). This can result in detachment or emotional numbing. This phase overlaps with the previous heroic and subsequent honeymoon phases and can extend into the disillusionment phase.    

The honeymoon phase (Bowenkamp, 2000; California Department of Mental Health, 2009) can extend from one week to several months after the disaster. This is the time when lots of help and high emotional support are available. Hope and optimism prevail and there is a feeling that help will continue to be available, there will be a quick recovery, and everything will return to normal soon. There is a high sense of having shared a catastrophic experience and survived. Individuals may wear hats or T-shirts with “I survived ….  ”. When survivors meet, the conversation is about their shared experiences. The focus is on being alive, having survived, and still being functional. Denial is common about the reality of the extent, or the future impact, of the events. Toward the end of this phase, reality may be coupled with grief, disbelief, and anger; bargaining can begin.

During these phases, family, neighbors and friends draw together and help each other. Rescue personnel are welcome but other outsiders may be rejected. Sometimes in a school setting, counselors rush in to help – and can be resented for interfering. It can seem a violation of privacy when outsiders witness the grief and distress of those impacted by the disaster [Kentucky Center for School Safety (KCSS), 2008]. 

A transition phase occurs in the process of recovery. Although the disaster is in the past and conversation no longer focuses on the events, this transition period can be difficult. This phase can be accompanied by emotional reactions present as physical symptoms (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009). Individuals who complain of sleep disturbances, nightmares, continued indigestion, continuing fatigue or other physical issues may not realize that these concerns are related to the disaster (KCSS, 2008). In addition, there may be relationship difficulties or roommate problems resulting from underlying anger or resentment. Work difficulties and academic problems are common and may cause difficulty with concentration, focus, or loss of motivation.

Reality sets in during the disillusionment phase (California Department of Mental Health, 2009), which usually begins somewhere between three days and three weeks after the event and can last for several months or years. The length of time is closely associated with the extent of loss, perceived importance of the loss, and resources available. This phase begins when helping efforts end and support disappears. The sense of standing alone and being totally responsible can be overwhelming. The strong sense of community and support disappears and there is a realization that life will never be the same, leading to a strong sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Resentment and bitterness appear with delays and unfulfilled hopes or promises of help. There is unrelenting stress and fatigue, increased anger and depression, and isolation and loneliness. Individuals experience frustration, self-doubt, loss, grief, hostility, exhaustion from multiple demands, financial pressures, relationship issues, and stress from the resulting changes. Individuals may become “stuck” in the disillusionment phase and the associated physical and emotional symptoms can last for years. If recovery is delayed or doesn’t happen, emotional problems may appear and lead to psychological disorders. Anger can be turned outward in acts of violence or destruction or turned inward resulting in depression and suicide.

Most individuals successfully negotiate these phases and enter the recovery or reconstruction phase (California Department of Mental Health, 2009). Recovery involves recognizing self-responsibility for rebuilding life and solving problems. Individuals change their assumptions about life and this can create distress although the intensity of the distress will subside with time. Normal functioning is gradually reestablished and the focus moves to capabilities and the ability to recover. Individuals may question their own behaviors during the event as they try to make sense of what has happened. Satisfaction with personal progress and a return to appropriate emotional responses to current events occurs. The amount of time to recover and move on depends on what happened, the meaning and perceived importance of the event, the level of support, and the individual’s resilience or ability to snap back.

What can advisors do? Advisors should be familiar with the phases of disaster recovery. When working with an individual who has experienced a disaster, advisors should show by their words and actions that they care and are concerned. Friendly actions and a few words of support can help tremendously (Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 2006). Don’t be hesitant about doing the wrong thing; advisors should ask how they can help. Keep helping – even small deeds mean a lot. Be aware that issues extend over time after the event.

Advisors can help students understand the need for a support group where survivors have the opportunity to talk and share feelings about the event. We should encourage involvement with activities outside of self, and time to relax with friends. The University of Wisconsin Extension Service (n.d.) notes that it is important that we encourage survivors to recognize the necessity of letting other people help. We should recognize that disbelief, anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, and a rollercoaster of emotions is normal after a disaster. Survivors must be patient with themselves and others. They must refocus on the big picture instead of obsessing about little details and problems; we can not expect things to be instantly restored. Stress can be relieved by working out, getting enough sleep, listening to upbeat music, eating correctly, and managing time and finances. Remember that a support network of family, friends, clergy, and advisors is essential, but advisors should know when and how to refer the survivor to professional help. Rather than suggesting that individuals need psychological help, use more palatable terms such as talking with someone about available resources or the stress of a disaster.

Recovering from disasters is a process that takes time – for us and for our advisees. We must recognize our own stages of recovery and realize that our stages impact how we respond to students. We must be patient with ourselves and with advisees if we are to help achieve recovery.

Lee Kem
Murray State University


Bowenkamp, C. (2000). Coordination of mental health and community agencies in disaster response. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health (pp. 159-165).

California Department of Mental Health. (2009). Crisis Counseling Program Toolkit – Phases of Disaster. Retrieved September 2, 2009, from www.dmh.ca.gov/Disaster/CCPToolkit/default.asp

Encarta Dictionary. (2009) Retrieved September 11, 2009, from http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_1861604992/disaster.html

Kentucky Center for School Safety (KCSS) (2008). Retrieved September 22, 2009, from www.kysafeschools.org 

Mental Health Center of North Iowa. (n.d.). Background Phases of Disaster. Retrieved September 2, 2009, from www.mhconi.org/Topic_DisasterBkgrd.htm

Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management (2006). Recovery from disaster handbook. Retrieved September 2, 2009, from www.hsem.state.mn.us/HSem_view_Article.asp?docid=313&catid=4

Scurfield, R. (April 2007). Six Stages of Disaster Recovery. Retrieved September 2, 2009, from hwww.usm.edu/gc/health/scurfield/files/Six-Common-Stages-Disaster-Recovery-rev-April-2007.pdf

University of Wisconsin Extension Service. (n.d.) Emotional recovery after a disaster: How families and neighbors can help one another cope. Retrieved September 2, 2009, from https://www.co.chippewa.wi.us/government/emergency-management/flooding/emotional-recovery-after-a-disaster

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2009). Phases of traumatic stress reactions in a disaster. Retrieved September 2, 2009, from www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/phases-trauma-reactions.asp 

Note: Another excellent resource is Tips for Survivors of a traumatic event: Managing your stress during a disaster, a one page handout from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This can be ordered from www.samhsa.gov

Cite this article using APA style as: Kem, L. (2009, December). Disaster recovery. Academic Advising Today, 32(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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