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THE MYTHS OF HUMAN RESPONSE IN DISASTER

In the June edition on TMD* [1986], Ruth Wraith and Rob Gordon from the department of Child and Family Psychiatry at the Melbourne Royal Children's Hospital, commenced a series on Human Responses to Natural Disasters. The second article in the series covers the myth of human response in disasters.

Comparatively few people experience a disaster directly, yet it is a highly emotional situation which occupies a place in the thoughts and daydreams of everyone. Both children and adults tend to ask themselves "how would I cope"? This is a way of finding out about oneself, of confronting fears and preparing for any eventuality.

The strong need to know how people react leads the media to present many accounts of people coping with disaster. The various character types and their responses can readily be predicted. These accounts of people coping with disaster. The various character types and their responses can readily be predicted. These accounts rely on emotion for their popularity, but lead to grossly inaccurate descriptions of human behaviour.

Another source of distortion is the difficulty people have in maintaining an accurate view of strongly emotionally charged situations. There is on one hand, a tendency to minimise events and deny their effects, with the aim of showing they are not as threatening as they seem. The result is a failure to recognise real problems and needs. On the other hand, there is also a tendency to over-dramatise important events and show that no one can do anything about them, and things will never be the same again. This approach is one which takes satisfaction in the disaster, and leads to failure to recognise the endurance and resilience of people and communities in the face of extreme situations.

It is understandable then, that myths should develop about disasters, but proper understanding and planning requires them to be identified and corrected.

A number of the most common myths are dealt with below;

Myth No.1 People in danger, panic

The idea of panic involves two things. First, loss of control leading to unthinking, impulsive behaviours; second, selfish concern to save oneself even at the expense of others if necessary.

Experience and research show that panic is very rare in disasters. Normal people react to danger by doing the best they can for themselves and those with them. They may even make mistakes from lack of knowledge of confusion, which may even cost them of others their lives. But that is not panic.

The circumstances under which panic is most likely to occur are when;

Even in these circumstances only a small number are likely to panic; the majority will take whatever steps are available to protect and comfort themselves.

It is also important not to confuse the need for direction and information with panic. People who are uncertain, may behave inappropriately, but they make rational decisions based on the available information.

Myth No.2 In the face of personal danger, people only think of themselves.

This is a popular theme in fictional disaster stories, where the selfish behaviour of most is a backdrop to the hero`s generosity. However the majority of people in disasters, behave with responsibility and concern for their neighbours. Many stories have emerged from the recent bushfires, of people endangering their own lives to ensure others were safe, of men helping save a neighbour`s house while their own burned.

There are always stories of self interest in all disasters, but although they tend to get the most publicity, they are far from representative. Disaster planning should take account of the fact that most people will think of others in an emergency.

Myth No. 3 Too much information is likely to scare people into behaving erratically.

It is sometimes thought that people are unable to handle information about a threat to themselves of their property, that it will cause panic of they will over-react. It is true that if information is incomplete, vague, or ambiguous, its effect on a group or community will be unpredictable and often unhelpful. However, on the other hand it has been found that people are reluctant to believe in the reality of a threat which is unexpected and outside their ordinary experience. Some people refuse to be evacuated even when urged to do so by Police.

The evidence is that the majority of people react responsibly to the majority of people react responsibly to the information they are given. They usually check it and look to familiar people for guidance and leadership, such as friends and relatives, even if they are outside the threatened area. Sometimes, however the information is misleading of inaccurate. Information about an impending disaster should be provided by somebody known and trusted, or in an appropriate official position. It should be clear and concise about the nature of the threat, the likelihood of it occurring and the possible conditions which may affect it. It should also include suggested courses of action. Categorical statements such as "there is no threat",should be avoided unless it is quite certain. It is better to be specific about the situation at ta given time and provide later information on the altered situation, than to be vague or try to cover too many possibilities.

Myth No. 4 People do not react with severe emotional disturbance when there is no effect from the disaster on them.

This idea is based on the assumption that crisis situations cause people to break down and when they do so, they produce symptoms of mental illness. Where this does not happen, the expectation is that the person has "coped" and will not be affected by it, other than perhaps temporary reactions.

Serious mental disturbance occurs in only a very small number of cases. The majority of people employ the strengths and skills they have and meet the demands of the situation. At the same time, the stress of the disaster experience and the lengthy recovery process can be expected to have its effects on all of those involved. These problems are in the nature of normal reactions to an abnormal situation. However these reactions need to be understood. Most people will need extra help during the recovery period, even if only from family and friends. If these response-appropriate reactions are understood and recognised, they can be anticipated and dealt with before they develop into more serious problems, or cause major interferences to the ongoing events of regular life, such as child rearing and marriage.

Myth No. 5 Children are not affected by disasters.

This view is based on the fact that children may show initial obvious signs like nightmares, fears and immature behaviour, but then appear to cope with extraordinary circumstances, without apparent changes in behaviour. Their awareness of events is closely related to the way their parents and other adults experience them. If the adults become frightened of confused, but often tend to keep their distress to themselves, especially if they sense the adults are unsure of how to handle it.

Children also `postpone' their responses until they get the `all clear'. This means they only feel safe to express their problems in their behaviour when things are getting back to normal, of when they sense their parents are ready to cope with them. Then they no longer express their concerns in terms of everyday family or other problems. These often go unrecognised as disaster repercussions. Failing to see the connection between the disaster and later problems, leads parents and teachers to misunderstand the behaviour and treat it in ways that make matters worse.

Myth No. 6 That a community affected by a disaster will fall apart or never recover.

This belief originates in a sensitivity to the far reaching social impact of a disaster. It recognises that such a traumatic event causes permanent changes to the community, If `recovery' is taken to mean returning to how things were before the disaster, then the community will indeed never recover. What does happen however, is that communities that are not completely obliterated by the disaster, reconstruct themselves and gradually assimilate the disaster into their history, and continue a process of development. Communities, like healthy people, have a capacity to adapt to dramatic events and go on with life. What needs to be emphasised is how the community should alter its pre- disaster functioning plans, in order to take the disaster related changes into account.

Disaster stimulate great efforts on the part of community members. Often these result in mutual conflict. The real task is developing community processes which will co-ordinate these efforts. Otherwise the remaining bitterness and resentment do cause deep community dissentience.

Myth No. 7 Workers in the disaster situation are not affected by the disaster.

There is a natural tendency to separate people in a disaster situation into two groups:

However, anybody entering the disaster setting becomes involved in emotionally powerful experiences. Seeing the destruction, hearing people's stories, the stress and confusion of the situation, all place heavy demands, if not recognised and dealt with, can result in health problems in workers or their families, some of which may not show up until a considerable time after the event.

Another hazard of neglecting the effect on the workers is that their performance is affected, and especially those with planning or administrative responsibilities, may have their judgement distorted by their own feelings. This may result in neglecting some needs, giving inappropriate assistance or creating more problems, by misunderstanding the requirements of the situation. The human error factor is responsible for waste inefficiency and needless distress in recovery operations and one way of reducing it, is to acknowledge and cater for the emotional and psychological impact on workers:

The following table summarises these myths;

Myths have been dispelled by knowledge. Increasing research on disasters is being done, to gain a better understanding accumulated from many different sources, to serve as a basis to anticipate the effects on people, families and social systems in recovering from them, or avoiding some of the possible longer term repercussions. However, the understanding of these effects is at an early stage and the knowledge of how to avoid of assist them is even less well developed. Unfortunately, it is only by accumulating more experiences of human suffering in disasters, that this knowledge can be gained.

Continued in December TMD-"General principles of human response to crisis situations".


* Title: Human responses to natural disasters [Series of parts] Parts 1 to 4: Part 1. Part 2: The myths of human response in disaster.Part 3: General principles of human response to crisis situations.Part 4: Short term human responses to disaster
Author: Wraith, Ruth; Gordon, Rob
Source: Macedon Digest, v.1 1986; 1987: v.1, no.2, June 1986: 3-4, v.1, no.3, Sept 1986: 3-5, v.1, no.4, Dec 1986: 3-4, v.2, no.1, Mar 1987: 3-5
Journal Title: Macedon Digest
Publication Year: 1986

The Macedon Digest is produced by the Australian Natural Disaters Organisation at Mount Macedon, formerly Australian Counter Disaster College, formerly Australian Emergency Management Institute.


Updated 20 July, 2004 , webmaster, CPBR (cpbr-info@anbg.gov.au)