Executive Director's Column

Psychological Science in the Response to Disasters

It seems as though our collective recent memory is overflowing with disasters - the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Tsunami of 2004, and now Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the wake of each disaster has been a heavy loss of life and profound consequences for mental health.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

For most of us, Hurricane Katrina has been the focus of our attention for the past several weeks. It is a natural disaster of mammoth proportions, and we are only beginning to comprehend its damage and long-term consequences. No matter where our identities lie as psychologists, we should all take pride in the swift and concrete actions taken by APA and especially by our colleagues who have heeded the call to action in providing help to those in need. We must also recognize that many of our own - clinicians, scientists, and educators - have suffered personal and professional loss and injury. We owe it to one another to help in all the ways we can.

It seems as though our collective recent memory is overflowing with disasters - the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Tsunami of 2004, and now Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the wake of each disaster has been a heavy loss of life and profound consequences for mental health. In each case, the damage to physical infrastructure pales in comparison to the physical and mental injury suffered by people.

Because the human toll is so large, it is not surprising that many turn to psychology for answers. At first, the questions focus on what can be done to help the victims, many of whom are suffering the greatest traumas of their lives. Eventually - in every case - questions start to focus on the nature of human behavior. Why did some not heed the warnings to evacuate? Was proper attention paid to the design of communication and warning systems? Do we design our buildings, cities, roadways, and transportation systems in ways that can accommodate the human response to disaster? Why does civil disorder and panic often ensue in the wake of disasters? Do we really know enough about the mental health needs of those who are touched by such disasters, and can we better anticipate them in the future?

These questions all cut to the heart of scientific psychology. Our science can provide the answers, if only we would apply ourselves to finding them. Sadly, too little research attention is paid. Don't get me wrong - many fine programs of research do focus precisely on these questions. My point is that more needs to be done before our research results can accumulate enough to shape policy and guide interventions.

I know that some will argue that science does not - must not! - work this way. I've heard some say that the road to scientific discovery should be protected and insulated from political and social forces, and that we must not be deterred by moments or crises of the day. Some will reason that true scientific discovery requires that we set our sights much farther down the road, and resolving that we will eventually get to the answers - some day.

I disagree. I believe that science works best and is most productive when it is inspired by the need to solve practical and pressing problems. The greatest scientific discoveries have been the result of such inspiration. I most appreciate research that lies - as Donald Stokes would call it - in Pasteur's quadrant. Scientists need feel no shame when their work is motivated by practical questions, and they should display no modesty in offering their results when they inform those questions. If we can rise to this challenge, psychological science will have something of profound significance to offer in the response to disasters.

What would this mean for scientific psychology? For one thing, we would need to devote more of our attention to identifying the practical problems that demand high priority. Once identified, we would need to resolve that programs of research, scientific journals, training programs, and public dissemination efforts focus on them in a sustained way.

The federal agencies that fund our research must also support the enterprise. The latest news is that NSF will support small grants for exploratory research (SGERs) relating to the hurricane disaster. This is good news. To make the research count in the long run, however, NSF needs to follow through by funding full-scale major programs of research inspired by the problem. NIH - especially NIMH - must also heed the call to action. A renewed commitment to supporting research in social psychology, decision making, and human response to trauma would make NIMH a valued contributor to the effort. And the Department of Homeland Security - presently home of FEMA - would need to support the scientific effort in all of its areas of responsibility.

Lessons can always be learned in the wake of disasters. They are also quickly forgotten. Science can make a difference, and it can produce an enduring legacy.