Planning for People with Mental Health Needs During Emergencies

Alice Frame - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator

Mental illness is incredibly common in the United States. The National Institute of Health estimates that more than 18% of all adults in the US have a mental illness of some kind, and that 4.5% of adults have a serious mental illness. Mental illness is more common among adolescents – roughly 50% of individuals aged 13-18 have a mental illness of some kind. There are many kinds of mental illness, including (but not limited to) depression and anxiety, attention deficit disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. All are unique in their symptoms, treatment, and how they impact a person’s daily life.

During an emergency, the rates of mental illness will increase. Disaster and trauma can cause stress, anxiety, and depression in individuals who may not have a history of mental illness, and they can magnify symptoms of those who do. Planning for the needs of those with mental illness in an emergency is a vital part of disaster preparedness.

When planning, make sure to consider the following:

  1. Access to mental health professionals – in an emergency, it is important to have mental health professionals available to help those in crisis. In a disaster, they may be in higher demand, as many people who didn’t require treatment before may then need it in response to what they have experienced. It’s important to plan for this to ensure that everyone has access to the support services that they need. 

  2. Access to medication - many individuals with diagnosed mental illness take medication to help manage their condition and related symptoms. In an emergency, accessing medication can be difficult. For many of these individuals, not taking medications will magnify symptoms, make coping more difficult, and can result in withdrawal symptoms if they are unable to take them. Plan for medication supply and dissemination so that individuals who need these medications can get them on time.

  3. Training first responders to help them better communicate with and assist individuals with mental illness – when individuals are struggling with mental illness, their actions can be misinterpreted as defiance or resistance. The fact that mental illness often isn’t visible makes this even more common. It’s important for emergency personnel to be trained in how to interact with individuals with all types of disabilities – including those with mental illness – to avoid this. Treating someone as non-compliant will only make the situation worse if they are struggling with mental illness symptoms.

Mental illness often isn’t visible, so it’s important to approach every encounter with an open mind. Mental illness is very common, and rates will increase following an emergency. The more planning done ahead of time, the better the needs of all people can be met.