In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disasters

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Textbooks
  • Introductory Articles and Chapters
  • Recommended Reading from a Social and Anthropological Perspective
  • Support for Disaster Responders and Mental Health Clinicians
  • Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness
  • Professional Development and Training
  • Bibliographies
  • Research Databases

Social Work Disasters
Ted Bober
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0074


Disasters are complex interactions between nature, the human-built environment, and social processes that significantly harm people and their sustainable environment and deplete their resources. Compared to emergency events, disasters usually overwhelm the affected community’s resources and capacities to respond to all the needs of survivors. Though some disasters are highly publicized events, on average approximately five hundred disasters occur on the planet each year. Most disasters are not widely reported in North America, and yet since the turn of the 21st century over a third of the earth’s population was affected by a disaster. Disasters are best understood as dynamic processes that are evolving with our rapid population growth, urbanization, increasing reliance on complex technologies, and climate change. Postdisaster recovery may range from short-lived distress to longer-term physical and psychosocial consequences. For the most part, the normal human response to extreme stressful events is resiliency and adaptation. Resilience and recovery are sustainable when outside support replenishes vital lost or damaged resources. However, sociopolitical factors and historical “patterns of neglect” affect prevention efforts and postdisaster well-being. Personal and local vulnerabilities and resources are not distributed equally among individual children, families, communities, or countries. Most disaster research focuses on specific types of disasters (e.g., hurricanes, tsunamis) and is carried out by specialists such as sociologists, geophysicists or mental health professionals. Social workers have three strong pillars to meet the challenge of disasters. First, social workers have a practice history of working with individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. Practice is informed by a strong background in theory, research, community building, advocacy, and evidenced informed treatment approaches to foster disaster-related health promotion, prevention, and recovery skills. Second, practice is based on a commitment to seeing disasters in the broader context of social justice, diversity, and inclusiveness. This article will introduce social work students, researchers, clinicians, and policymakers to the many facets of disasters while fostering professional curiosity and opportunities for further exploration.

Introductory Textbooks

Numerous textbooks examining disasters and their effect on individuals, families, and communities, as well as psychosocial interventions, have been published since 2000. Three excellent comprehensive textbooks on disasters, emergency management, and psychosocial interventions are Halpern and Vermeulen 2017; Ursano, et al. 2017; and Flynn and Sherman 2017. Disasters pose many research challenges; a good resource for the research and academic community is Norris, et al. 2006. Disaster response requires both basic crisis skills and specialized skills. Yeager and Roberts 2015, a crisis-intervention handbook, is a practical introduction to essential crisis-intervention skills. Lastly there is good evidence that emergency and disaster work are demanding occupations that require sensitivity to the work culture and intervention to support professional well-being and resilience. These issues are addressed in Regehr and Bober 2005, which offers an inside view of the challenges of emergency and disaster work and programs to support well-being.

  • Flynn, B. W., and R. Sherman, eds. 2017. Integrating emergency management and disaster behavioral health: One picture through two lenses. Kidlington, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

    An excellent integration of disaster work through the lens both of mental health and emergency management, with an American context.

  • Haddow, G. D., J. A. Bullock, and D. P. Coppola. 2017. Introduction to emergency management. 6th ed. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

    A thorough introduction to emergency management that would be essential reading for mental health professionals seeking to understand and work in disaster preparedness and response.

  • Halpern, J., and K. Vermeulen. 2017. Disaster mental health interventions: Core principles and practices. New York: Routledge.

    A comprehensive volume that provides an excellent introduction to the field, with detailed, evidence-based guidance on interventions. An excellent reference book both for new and seasoned clinicians.

  • Housley, J., and L. E. Beutler. 2007. Treating victims of mass disaster and terrorism. Ashland, OH: Hogrefe & Huber.

    Provides professionals with practical, evidence-based guidance on a staged approach for post disaster mental health care. This stage-approached continuum of interventions is a time-worthy review.

  • Neria, Y., S. Galea, and F. H. Norris, eds. 2009. Mental health and disasters. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    At 640 pages this is a hefty yet invaluable book that covers the most current research on disasters and their mental health and broader psychosocial effects. There is a thorough review of interventions, including exceptional chapters on resilience, vulnerable populations, and numerous case studies. An excellent comprehensive review of the field.

  • Norris, F. H., S. Galea, M. J. Friedman, and P. J. Watson, eds. 2006. Methods for disaster mental health research. New York: Guilford.

    Serves as an excellent guide to disaster-related mental health research. A recommended research coursebook.

  • Regehr, C., and T. Bober. 2005. In the line of fire: Trauma in the emergency services. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195165029.001.0001

    Based on the research and years of practical experience of two social workers. Provides an evidence-based practical guide to understanding the effects of disasters and trauma events on emergency services and a continuum of early interventions and long-term follow-up for police, paramedics, firefighters, and emergency mental health practitioners.

  • Shigemura, J., and R. K. Chhem, eds. 2015. Mental health and social issues following a nuclear accident: The case of Fukushima. Tokyo: Springer.

    The first book to examine the consequences and responses to Japan’s Fukushima disaster, on the basis of research and field experience.

  • Ursano, R. J., C. S. Fullerton, L. Weisaeth, and B. Raphael, eds. 2017. Textbook of disaster psychiatry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A very comprehensive collection of chapters covering a wide range of disasters, treatment, and psychosocial intervention.

  • Yeager, K., and A. R. Roberts, eds. 2015. Crisis intervention handbook: Assessment, treatment, and research. 4th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Disaster mental health support services require a foundation in crisis intervention. This book is a useful resource for a mental health professional and would serve as an effective coursebook.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.