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The importance of mental health triage in disaster preparedness


News reports that this year's tornado season is the deadliest since 1953 have me thinking about emergency preparedness.

While many equate preparing for natural disasters with stocking up on bottled water, non-perishable foods, first aid supplies and other items, a group of Johns Hopkins University bioethicists are urging emergency planners to devote more attention to triaging patients with pre-existing mental conditions in the aftermath of tragedies such as the deadly tornado in Joplin, Mo.

Previous research has shown natural and man-made disasters are particularly difficult for individuals with disabilities and mental disorders. In an article published in next month's issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, the bioethicists discuss common ethical obligations and challenges in assisting patients with mental health conditions after a disaster. Authors' recommendations for emergency planners are outlined in a release:

As a first step, the authors recommend that disaster-response planners proactively identify and anticipate what needs might arise by meeting with clinicians and public health officials. Those discussions would then guide comprehensive advance planning.

Because licensed practitioners will likely be scarce immediately after a disaster, planners should consider training emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and other first-responders to identify those with pre-existing mental conditions and recognize those in need of prompt attention.

Acknowledging that first-responders may also be spread thinly post-disaster, the authors also suggest that planners consider turning to volunteers from the community, such as religious leaders and trained civilians, to distribute basic materials and temporary services to at-risk individuals.

Previously: Next hurdle for Haitians: coping with PTSD
Photo by Mike McCune

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