In This Article Disasters

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Research Databases
  • Sociology and Anthropology
  • Introductory Articles and Chapters
  • Lessons from Katrina
  • Lessons from Terrorist Attacks
  • Pandemics
  • Diversity and Cultural Competence
  • Children and Families
  • Evidence-Based Psychosocial Intervention Guidelines
  • Disaster Interventions
  • Innovations in Psychosocial Interventions and Treatment
  • Postdisaster Resilience
  • Citizen-Based Initiatives
  • Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness
  • Training
  • Disaster Responders and Disaster Stress

Social Work Disasters
Ted Bober
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0074


Disasters are complex interactions between nature, the human-built environment, and social processes that significantly harm people and their sustainable environment. Compared to emergency events, disasters usually overwhelm the affected community’s resources and capacities to respond to all the needs of survivors. Though some disasters are highly publicized events, on average approximately five hundred disasters occur on the planet each year. Most disasters are not widely reported in North America, and yet since the turn of the 21st century over a third of the earth’s population was affected by a disaster. Disasters are best understood as dynamic processes that are evolving with our rapid population growth, urbanization, increasing reliance on complex technologies, and other environmental challenges. Post-disaster recovery may range from short-lived distress to longer-term physical and psychosocial consequences. For the most part, the normal human response to extreme stressful events is resiliency and adaptation. Resilience and recovery are sustainable when outside support replenishes vital lost or damaged resources. However, postdisaster well-being is affected by many variables, including sociopolitical factors and historical “patterns of neglect.” Personal and local vulnerabilities and resources are often not distributed equally among individual children, families, communities, or countries. Most disaster research is often focused on a type of disaster (e.g., hurricanes, tsunamis) and has been carried out by specialists such as geophysicists or mental-health professionals. Social workers have three strong pillars to meet the challenge of disasters: a history of working with individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole; a deep theoretical and applied knowledge of health promotion, prevention, and treatment strategies; operational and practical tools such as compassionate listening, research, and clinical intervention skills; and experience with policy making, community building, and advocacy. Social workers are well positioned to work with disasters and the diverse public and scientific community. The following entry will provide a good foundation for social work students, researchers, clinicians, and policy makers.

Introductory Textbooks

Numerous textbooks examining disasters, their effect on individuals, families, and communities as well as psychosocial interventions have been published since 2000. Two good introductions to the field of disaster interventions are Halpern and Tramontin 2007 and Ritchie, et al. 2006. The best comprehensive source on mental health and disasters is the excellent Neria, et al. 2009. Disasters pose many research challenges: a good resource for the research and academic community is Norris, et al. 2006. Havenaar, et al. 2002 is on ecological disasters and has a more comprehensive discussion of ecological disasters such as radiation and chemical disasters. Disaster response requires both basic crisis skills and specialized skills. Roberts 2005, a crisis-intervention handbook, is a practical introduction to essential crisis-intervention skills. Lastly there is good evidence that emergency and disaster work are demanding occupations that require sensitivity to the work culture and intervention to support professional well-being and resilience. These issues are addressed in Regehr and Bober 2005, which offers an inside view of the challenges of emergency and disaster work and programs to support well-being.

  • Halpern, J., and M. Tramontin. 2007. Disaster mental health: Theory and practice. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks and Cole.

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    Divided into two main sections: the first is on theory, disaster effects, and vulnerable populations. The second part of the book provides an excellent introduction to continuum of psychosocial interventions. A good basic introduction to the field.

  • Havenaar, J. M., J. G. Cwikel, and E. J. Bromet, eds. 2002. Toxic turmoil: Psychological and societal consequences of ecological disasters. Plenum Series on Stress and Coping. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

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    The term “ecological disaster” is used to indicate incidents such as exposure to radiation, chemical toxins, and other hazardous agents that are often followed by widespread fear of future adverse health effects. Using case studies, this book presents an overview of research on the unique psychological and societal consequences of ecological disasters and the challenges to an effective response.

  • Housley, J., and L. E. Beutler. 2007. Treating victims of mass disaster and terrorism. Ashland, OH: Hogrefe & Huber.

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    Provides professionals with practical, evidence-based guidance on a staged approach for postdisaster mental-health care, based on empirically supported principles. At minimum, the stage-approached continuum of interventions is worth reviewing.

  • Neria, Y., S. Galea, and F. H. Norris, eds. 2009. Mental health and disasters. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    At 640 pages this is a hefty yet invaluable book that covers the most current research on disasters and their mental-health and broader psychosocial effects. There is a thorough review of interventions, including exceptional chapters on resilience, vulnerable populations, and numerous case studies. An excellent comprehensive review of the field.

  • Norris, F. H., S. Galea, M. J. Friedman, and P. J. Watson, eds. 2006. Methods for disaster mental health research. New York: Guilford.

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    Serves as an excellent guide to disaster-related mental-health research. A recommended research course book.

  • Regehr, C., and T. Bober. 2005. In the line of fire: Trauma in the emergency services. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Based on the research and years of practical experience of two social workers. Provides an evidence-based practical guide to understanding the effects of disasters and trauma events on emergency services and a continuum of early interventions and long-term follow-up for police, paramedics, firefighters, and emergency mental-health practitioners.

  • Ritchie, E. C., P. J. Watson, and M. J. Friedman, eds. 2006. Interventions following mass violence and disasters: Strategies for mental health practice. New York: Guilford.

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    Offers clear guidelines for interventions in the immediate, intermediate, or long-term aftermath of a disaster.

  • Roberts, A. R. 2005. Crisis intervention handbook: Assessment, treatment, and research. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Disaster mental-health services require a foundation in crisis intervention, and this book is a useful resource for a mental-health professional.

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