I very much appreciated Doug’s 9/9/08blog highlighting the resilience of behavioral health providers in the Gulf Coast Region by focusing on Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority’s experience in implementing new emergency plans in the aftermath of Gustav. Many lessons were learned after Hurricane Katrina that inform new procedures and place providers in an even stronger position to meet the behavioral health needs of a population that is even more vulnerable after a natural disaster. I also agree with the 9/12 response to Doug’s blog that spoke to the way behavioral health providers “stand up” in times of great need after disaster strikes. We can all recall the compassionate response of so many from the behavioral health field (national associations, state and federal authorities, consumers, families, providers etc.) to support residents of the Gulf Coast and evacuees all over the country after Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Time after time we can observe that our fields of mental health services and substance use treatment and prevention services provide needed services and supports to communities facing the consequences of adverse events.
Behavioral health professionals have also contributed to a knowledge base known as “Risk Communications”. Dr. Brian Flynn, who was in charge of the SAMHSA/CMHS emergency response programs, taught me that the most important mental health intervention after a disaster or adverse incident is what public officials, key leaders and experts say (and don’t say) to the public immediately after an event. We learned after the 9/11/01 attacks, the anthrax incidents and various natural disasters that what is communicated to the public about those incidents and the implications for individuals can help mitigate emotional distress and adverse mental health and substance use consequences or can potentially exacerbate those outcomes. With this in mind, mental health experts along with the media and journalists have developed a body of knowledge that gives guidance to key leaders and officials as to how to avoid making an already precarious and volatile situation worse and how to help citizens deal constructively in the midst of such adverse situations. SAMHSA in partnership with CDC developed the risk communications guide,
Communicating in a Crisis: Risk Communication Guidelines for Public Officials. The information in this guide can be helpful to a wide range of people including managers at all levels of an organization when effective communication to people and employees is needed. Ten tips of effective communication are listed on the back of this booklet. As I list them for you here, it strikes me that these tips would be good for the current candidates for elected offices to heed during this campaign season. I guess in many ways, political campaigning is all about risk communications too!