Understanding Mental States for Effective Emergency Response

Strategies and Insights for Crisis, Risk, and Emergency Communicators to Navigate Mental States and Deliver Clear, Empathetic Messages During Emergencies

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Dear reader,

I'm currently in Germany, and I'm giving a training course on creating communication plans for emergencies.

Some of the shared experiences here, made me think about the psychological impact disasters can have on the people we want to inform and communicate with.

When an emergency occurs, whether it's a natural disaster or a health crisis, people's minds go through different states, each affecting their ability to respond.

Understanding these mental states is important for crisis, risk, and emergency communicators. So I did some research and combined it with my own experience and training.

In this issue of the Wag The Dog newsletter, I address the key mental states that people go through during a crisis and suggest strategic communication techniques to reduce stress and anxiety.

Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to give feedback or share your experiences!

PS: A warm welcome to the +40 people who joined the newsletter in the last 2 weeks. 👋

Table of Contents

Phases and mental states during a crisis

Immediate reaction Phase 

Shock and denial: Initially, those affected have difficulty grasping the reality of the situation and often feel numb or detached. Denial can further exacerbate the situation, especially if people refuse to acknowledge the severity of the threat because they aren't sufficiently informed . 

Acute stress response: This phase involves heightened anxiety, fear and confusion, characterised by physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate and a sense of impending doom. Effective communication should acknowledge these feelings and provide clear, actionable information to help manage them.

Intervention strategies:

  • Acknowledge the uncertainty and express empathy: Use statements like, “I can’t tell you today why people are dying so suddenly in our town, but I can tell you what we’re doing to find out. Here’s the first step...” . Showing empathy helps people feel understood and supported.

  • Clear, simple messages: Simplify safety instructions to avoid confusion and encourage correct action. For example: “Leave your home and go to the nearest emergency shelter before 5pm”.

Short-term response phase 

Emotional distress: As the shock wears off, intense feelings of sadness, anger, and helplessness take over. Feelings of uncertainty frequently make these emotions worse and cause them to fluctuate quickly.

Cognitive disorientation: In the overwhelming nature of the emergency, people may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering details. 

Intervention Strategies:

  • Encourage positive action: Suggest constructive actions, such as making family plans or donating blood, to help individuals regain a sense of control and purpose.

  • Provide credible and consistent information: Regular information from multiple credible sources prevents misinformation and reduces anxiety. Consistent messaging provides clarity and confidence.

Intermediate Response Phase 

Adaptation and coping: Gradually, people begin to adapt and use coping strategies, such as seeking social support or engaging in problem solving. 

Psychological distance and self-construction: People cope by focusing on either personal information (independent self-concept) or collective information about the community (interdependent self-concept). 

Intervention strategies:

  • Negative vicarious coping: Offer alternative courses of action to those indirectly affected by the crisis to prevent resource overload. For example, during the 2011 radiation disaster in Japan at the Fukushima powerplant, West Coast residents were guided on how to help instead of taking unnecessary medical action.

  • Facilitate adaptation and coping: recognise common misery and provide anticipatory guidance to help people adapt to their new reality and effectively manage their stress levels.

Long-Term Response Phase 

Chronic stress and mental health problems: Prolonged stress can lead to chronic mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Resilience and recovery: Over time, many people show resilience and begin to rebuild. Social support, community resilience and effective psychosocial interventions are crucial during this phase. 

Intervention strategies:

  • Address emotional symptoms: Recognise and treat the physical signs of stress, such as headaches or muscle aches, to distinguish those who need immediate help from those who don't .

  • Maintain trust and keep promises: Stick to the promises you made in the early stages and transparently acknowledge any failures to maintain public trust and credibility.

Specific mental health impacts

Suicide rates: Suicide rates often skyrocket after disasters, especially two years after the event. Proactively addressing mental health can mitigate these tragic outcomes.

Child mental health: Awareness of the significant impact on children’s mental health seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to targeted interventions and support for younger populations.

To close…

Effective crisis and risk communication is critical to dealing with the mental states that people experience in emergencies. We should strive to deliver clear, consistent, and empathetic messages that take into account the public’s emotions and inspire them to take positive action.

By understanding and strategically addressing these psychological responses, we, as communicators, can significantly reduce stress and help communities manage crises with resilience and strength.

What do you think?

Further reading.

刘肇瑞 梁红 童永胜 黄悦勤 安静. (2021). Psychological crisis intervention in public health emergencies. Chinese Mental Health Journal;

Emery, M. (2017). The Role of Religious Leaders in the Restoration of Hope Following Natural Disasters - Tatsushi Hirono, Michelle Emery Blake, 2017. SAGE Open.

I also created a “Perplexity Page” on the topic with more references and case studies here.

And for those interested in getting trained in psychological first aid, I highly recommend this course from Disaster Ready.

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What I am reading/testing/checking out:

  • Research: Tsujimoto, R., Fukuda, T., & Nobuyoshi Yabuki. (2024). Server-Enabled Mixed Reality for Flood Risk Communication: On-Site Visualisation with Digital Twins and Multi-Client Support. Environmental Modelling & Software, 106054–106054.

  • Paper: Ruohonen, J., Hjerppe, K., & Kortesuo, K. (2024). Crisis Communication in the Face of Data Breaches.

  • Tool: Otio.ai, an AI-native workspace, custom-built for research.

  • Tool: Spark email, a fast, cross-platform email client designed to filter out the noise, supported by AI.

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Parts of this newsletter were created using AI technology to draft content. In addition, all AI-generated images include a caption stating, 'This image was created using AI'. These changes were made in line with the transparency requirements of the EU AI law for AI-generated content.


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