National Preparedness Month: Planning for Disasters and Emergencies
Scanning the recent headlines of some of the nation’s major news sources provides a timely reminder that September is National Preparedness Month, a time for individuals, families, providers, organizations, and communities to focus on making a plan and getting ready for the hazards they may encounter at any time of the year.
Events such as hurricanes, droughts, extreme heat, and the nation’s ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency, with its significant impact on persons with behavioral health conditions, underscore that throughout the nation everyone needs to do their part to prepare for emergencies and disasters. Along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which leads the nation’s preparedness efforts, SAMHSA encourages others to join us in National Preparedness Month and throughout the year to help behavioral health clients, families, organizations, and communities prepare for emergencies and disasters.
Preparedness for Individuals, Caregivers and Families
Research on disasters show that persons with mental health conditions and substance use disorders are more vulnerable than others and may face increased risks before, during, and after a disaster or emergency.
Ready.gov has checklists, resources, and ideas individuals and families can use to prepare for emergencies. Some key suggestions include:
- Consider how individuals and their family members will receive emergency alerts and warnings.
- Examine Ready.gov planning resources that can help individuals consider the types of risks they may face in their situation or area.
- Think about shelter and evacuation during an emergency or disaster.
- Talk with family and household members about household needs and communication during an emergency.
Ready.gov also includes specific advice for persons with disabilities, such as thinking about prescription medications, power-dependent equipment, and keeping a list of medical facilities and providers.
When someone has a behavioral health condition, family and caregiver support is vital especially in preparedness efforts. Persons with behavioral health conditions and their families or caregivers may want to speak with their health care provider(s) about what they can do during an emergency or disaster. For instance, in some cases it may be helpful and feasible to obtain extra supplies of prescription medications for behavioral health conditions. Keeping a list of behavioral health facilities and providers in their current area, or other areas to which someone may travel or evacuate, may also be a good idea. SAMHSA offers an online treatment locator that can help in finding providers throughout the nation. During or after a disaster or emergency, those who need help can also contact SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Hotline, 1-800-985-5990.
Individuals and families may wish to help, as well. Those interested can volunteer for such organizations as the American Red Cross or FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team or take a first aid/CPR or mental health/psychological first aid course.
Preparedness for Providers, Organizations and Agencies
Before, during, and after an emergency or disaster, our nation relies on a skilled behavioral health workforce that includes peer support specialists and substance use disorder recovery coaches, often with lived experience, who support others with behavioral health conditions, as well as such professionals as psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, nurses, counselors, and technicians.
Ready.gov provides resources for businesses and organizations to consider in planning for an emergency or disaster. For instance, developing a continuity plan can help health care practices and other businesses recover from a disaster.
Behavioral health providers may review disaster behavioral health resources offered by SAMHSA as well as those from the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR). For instance, ASPR’s Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange has information on topics ranging from rural disaster health to behavioral health, technical assistance, and peer-to-peer networking opportunities. Another important resource for providers is SAMHSA’s disaster planning handbook, specifically intended for behavioral health providers and organizations. This tool offers ideas and suggestions for assessing hazards, ensuring organizational continuity, managing prescription medications, and developing and testing a disaster plan. SAMHSA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also offer tools for telehealth, which may support continuity of care during a disaster or emergency.
Local and state behavioral health and medical associations often offer training, information, resources, and ideas for behavioral health providers to prepare for emergency or disaster. Providers and others who are interested may also join local chapters of the Medical Reserve Corps, an ASPR-led network of health professionals who receive training and provide help during emergencies and other public health events.
SAMHSA’s Role in Preparedness
SAMHSA works with FEMA, ASPR, and other partners to plan for emergencies and disasters, emphasizing the need to include behavioral health in preparedness, response, and recovery. SAMHSA supports the new HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, has developed its own Climate Change and Health Equity webpage, and works closely with FEMA to operate the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program, which supports access to case management and counseling during disasters and emergencies.
SAMHSA has a Disaster Technical Assistance Center that provides resources for disaster planning. With state substance use disorder and mental health agencies and its networks of grantees and technology transfer centers, SAMHSA and its partners also recently launched 988, a national suicide and crisis lifeline.
SAMHSA also welcomes input from others. SAMHSA recently issued a Request for Information seeking the input of individuals, families, providers, communities, and others about how SAMHSA can facilitate planning for climate change and climate-driven disasters and emergencies in its grants and programs.
FEMA emphasizes whole community preparedness, recognizing that preparedness for disasters and emergencies is a shared responsibility. Events in major metropolitan areas sometimes garner more attention, but rural communities also must plan for disasters and emergencies. Behavioral health providers, agencies, and organizations should work on emergency preparedness with other parts of the public health system, including faith-based entities; public health departments and healthcare providers; housing providers; private businesses and community nonprofits; schools, universities, and colleges; hospitals and health clinics; and transportation providers. Considering the needs of such potentially vulnerable populations as older adults, young children, racial and ethnic minorities, persons speaking languages other than English, and lower-income and homeless persons is vital.
Individuals and healthcare providers may be able to participate in the community health needs assessments led by many local health departments. These assessments develop implementation plans and identify key health priorities in the community, including emergency planning. Volunteering also is one way to get involved and support the community. More broadly, as part of schools, businesses, faith-based entities, clubs, charities, and other groups, each of us can encourage colleagues and organizations to prepare for emergencies, helping to promote preparedness throughout one’s community.
No individual, organization, or community can be fully ready for every possible emergency situation. However, nearly everyone can take substantive and real steps to be as prepared as possible for the emergencies and disasters they are most likely to experience and encourage others to do the same. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of many disasters. We can each work individually and together with family, providers, and communities to prepare for and respond to these events.