Public disaster mental/behavioral health communication: Intervention across disaster phases


  • J. Brian Houston, PhD



crisis communication, risk communication, disaster, public health


Background: Disasters have been found to significantly impact mental and behavioral health.1 A public health response to disaster seeks to ameliorate this impact by identifying mental/behavioral health effects resulting from an event and by promoting healthy disaster-related outcomes. Disaster communication interventions are effective tools that disaster managers can use to achieve these outcomes.
Objectives: Based on a review of the literature, the objectives of this article are to describe disaster communication intervention activities and corresponding outcomes and to place those activities in a multiphase disaster communication framework.
Results: The Disaster Communication Intervention Framework (DCIF) is proposed. Outcomes targeted by DCIF include improving individual and community preparedness and resilience; decreasing disaster-related distress; promoting wellness, coping, recovery, and resilience; helping a community make sense of what happened during and after a disaster; and rebuilding the community. Strategies for achieving these outcomes are described.
Conclusions: DCIF provides a multiphase framework of public disaster mental/behavioral health communication intervention that can be used by disaster managers to improve mental and behavioral outcomes following a disaster.

Author Biography

J. Brian Houston, PhD

Department of Communication, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; Terrorism and Disaster Center, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


Norris FH, Friedman MJ, Watson PJ, et al.: 60,000 disaster victims speak, Part I. An empirical review of the empirical literature, 1981-2001. Psychiatry. 2002; 65(3): 207-239.

US Department of Homeland Security: National Response Framework. Washington, DC: Homeland Security, 2008. Available at Accessed July 15, 2010.

Rychetnik L, Frommer M, Hawe P, et al.: Criteria for evaluating evidence on public health interventions. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2002; 56(2): 119-127.

Institute of Medicine: Preparing for the Psychological Consequences of Terrorism: A Public Health Strategy. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2003.

Friedman MJ: Toward a public mental health approach for survivors of terrorism. In Danieli Y, Brom D, Sills J (eds.): The Trauma of Terrorism: Sharing Knowledge and Sharing Care: An International Handbook. Philadelphia, PA: Haworth Press, 2005: 527-539.

Foa EB, Cahill SP, Boscarino JA, et al.: Social, psychological, and psychiatric interventions following terrorist attacks: Recommendations for practice and research. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2005; 30(10): 1806-1817.

Fairbank JA, Friedman MJ, Jong JD, et al.: Intervention options for societies, communities, families, and individuals. In Green BL, Friedman MJ, Jong JD, Solomon SD, Kean TM, Fairbank JA, Donelan B, Frey-Wouters E, Danieli Y. (eds.): Trauma Interventions in War and Peace: Prevention, Practice, and Policy. New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.

Norris FH: Community and ecological approaches to understanding and alleviating postdisaster distress. In Neria Y, Gross R, Marshall RD (eds.): 9/11: Mental Health in the Wake of Terrorist Attacks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006: 141-156.

Zunin LM, Myers D: Training Manual for Human Service Workers in Major Disasters. 2nd ed.Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, 2000.

Vernberg EM: Intervention approaches following disasters. In La Greca AM, Silverman WK, Vernberg EM, Roberts MC (eds.): Helping Children Cope with Disasters and Terrorism.Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002: 55-72.

Fullilove MT, Saul J: Rebuilding communities post-disaster in New York. In Neria T, Gross R, Marshall RD (eds.): 9/11: Mental Health in the Wake of Terrorist Attacks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006: 164-177.

Marshall RD: Learning from 9/11: Implications for disaster research and public health. In Neria Y, Gross R, Marshall RD (eds.): 9/11: Mental Health in the Wake of Terrorist Attacks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006: 617-630.

Witte K: Generating effective risk messages: How scary should your risk communication be? In Burleson BR (ed.): Communication Yearbook. Vol 18. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995: 229-254.

Sandman PM: Crisis communication best practices: Some quibbles and additions. J Appl Commun Res. 2006; 34(3): 257-262.

Schoch-Spana M: Community resilience for catastrophic health events. Biosecur Bioterror. 2008; 6(2): 129-130.

Reynolds B,Seeger MW: Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication as an integrative model. J Health Commun. 2005; 10(1): 43-55.

Seeger MW: Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. J Appl Commun Res. 2006; 34(3): 232-244.

Reynolds B: Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002.

Reynolds B: Response to best practices. J Appl Commun Res. 2006; 34(3): 249-252.

Palenchar MJ: Historical trends of risk and crisis communication. In Heath RL, O’Hair HD (eds.): Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge, 2009: 31-52.

Meyers GC: When it Hits the Fan: Managing the Nine Crises of Business. New York: Mentor, 1986.

Tierney KJ, Lindell MK, Perry RW: Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2001.

Federal Emergency Management Agency: Personal Preparedness in America: Findings from the Citizen Corps National Survey. Washington, DC: US Department of Homeland Security, 2009.

Norris FH, Stevens SP, Pfefferbaum B, et al.: Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. Am J Commun Psychol. 2007; 41(1-2): 127-150.

Bonanno GA: Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? Am Psychol. 2004; 59(1): 20-28.

Bonanno GA, Galea S, Bucciarelli A, et al.: What predicts psychological resilience after disaster? The role of demographics, resources, and life stress. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2007; 75(5): 671-682.

Hoge EA, Austin ED, Pollack MH: Resilience: Research evidence and conceptual considerations for posttraumatic stress disorder. Depress Anxiety. 2007; 24(2): 139-152.

Heath RL, Palenchar MJ, O’Hair HD: Community building through risk communication infrastructure. In Heath RL, O’Hair HD (eds.): Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge, 2009: 471-487.

Stephens KK, Rimal RN, Flora JA: Expanding the reach of health campaigns: Community organizations as meta-channels for the dissemination of health information. J Health Commun. 2004; 9(Suppl 1): 97-111.

Heath RL, O’Hair HD: The significance of crisis and risk communication. In Heath RL, O’Hair HD (eds.): Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge, 2009: 5-30.

Slovic P: Trust, emotion, sex, politics, and science: Surveying the risk-assessment battlefield. Risk Anal. 1999; 19(4): 689-701.

Chess C, Salomone KL, Hance BJ, et al.: Results of a national symposium on risk communication: Next steps for government agencies. Risk Anal. 1995; 15(2): 115-125.

Fischhoff B: Risk perception and communication unplugged: Twenty years of process. Risk Anal. 1995; 15(2): 137-145.

Roberto AJ, Goodall CE, Witte K: Raising the alarm and calming fears: Perceived threat and efficacy during risk and crisis. In Heath RL, O’Hair HD (eds.): Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge, 2009: 285-301.

Small W: Exxon Valdez: How to spend billions and still get a black eye. Public Relat Rev. 1991; 17(1): 9-26.

Ross G: Guide: Media guidelines: From the “trauma vortex” to the “healing vortex.” In Danieli Y, Brom D, Sills J (eds.): The Trauma of Terrorism: Sharing Knowledge and Shared Care, an International Handbook. Philadelphia, PA: Haworth Press, 2005: 391-394.

Ropeik D: Best practices response. J Appl Commun Res. 2006; 34(3): 253-256.

Houston JB: Media coverage of terrorism: A meta-analytic assessment of media use and posttraumatic stress. Journal Mass Commun Q. 2009; 86(4): 844-861.

Ross G: Beyond the Trauma Vortex: The Media’s Role in Healing Fear, Terror, and Violence. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2003.

Drabek TE: The Human Side of Disaster. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2010.

Usher K: Recovery from disaster: How journalists at the New Orleans Times-Picayune understand the role of a post-Katrina newspaper. Journal Pract. 2009; 3(2): 216-232.

Naturale AJ: Outreach strategies: An experiential description of the outreach methodologies used in the September 11, 2001, disaster response in New York. In Ritchie EC, Watson PJ, Friedman MJ (eds.): Interventions Following Mass Violence and Disasters: Strategies for Mental Health Practice. New York: Guilford Press, 2006: 365-383.

Lefebvre RC, Flora JA: Social marketing and public health intervention. Health Educ Q. 1988; 15(3): 299-315.



How to Cite

Houston, PhD, J. B. “Public Disaster mental/Behavioral Health Communication: Intervention across Disaster Phases”. Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 10, no. 4, July 2012, pp. 283-92, doi:10.5055/jem.2012.0106.