Children and disasters: A framework for mental health assessment


  • Betty Pfefferbaum, MD, JD
  • Anne K. Jacobs, PhD
  • J. Brian Houston, PhD



assessment, children, disaster, disaster mental health, mass trauma, terrorism, trauma


Background: Providers serving children’s mental health needs face the complexities of tailoring assessments based on developmental stages, family characteristics, school involvement, and cultural and economic factors.This task is even more challenging in the face of a disaster, terrorist incident, or other mass trauma event. Traditional mental health knowledge and skills may not be sufficient to meet children’s needs in these chaotic situations. Unfortunately, disaster planning and response often overlook or only briefly address the unique mental health needs of children. While there is general agreement that children have specific vulnerabilities, few comprehensive plans exist for identifying and addressing children’s mental health needs predisaster and postdisaster.
Objectives/methods: Based on a review of the literature, the objectives of this article are to provide an overview of the central tenets of assessment with children throughout the course of a disaster and to propose a framework for disaster mental health assessment that can be used by a variety of providers in community disaster planning and response.
Results: Disaster-related assessments are described including surveillance, psychological triage, needs assessment, screening, clinical evaluation, and program evaluation. This article also identifies easily accessible resources for responders and providers who desire to become more familiar with child disaster mental health assessment concepts.
Conclusions: The framework described here provides an overview for understanding how assessment can be conducted to identify child and family needs and to inform the delivery of services following a disaster.

Author Biographies

Betty Pfefferbaum, MD, JD

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, College of Medicine, Terrorism and Disaster Center, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Anne K. Jacobs, PhD

Terrorism and Disaster Center, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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.


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How to Cite

Pfefferbaum, MD, JD, B., A. K. Jacobs, PhD, and J. B. Houston, PhD. “Children and Disasters: A Framework for Mental Health Assessment”. Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 10, no. 5, Sept. 2012, pp. 349-58, doi:10.5055/jem.2012.0112.