The Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health is prepared to assist survivors of a disaster by assessing how well they deal with the various Phases of Disaster. Our model is based on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Basic Crisis Counseling Program. This model identifies six phases of a disaster.


Six Phases of a Disaster

  1. Pre-disaster phase:
    • Disasters with no warning can cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security, fear of the future or fear of unpredicted tragedies, and a sense of loss of control or inability to protect oneself and family.
    • Disasters with warning can cause guilt or self-blame for failure to heed warnings.


  2. Impact phase:
    • Impact reactions can range from shock to overt panic.
    • Slow, low-threat disasters and rapid, dangerous disasters have different psychological impacts.
    • Great destruction and loss leads to psychosocial effects.
    • Initial confusion and disbelief are followed by focus on self-preservation and family protection.
    • Family separation during impact causes considerable anxiety.


  3. Heroic phase:
    • Many exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior and have high activity with low productivity.
    • Risk assessment may be impaired, and there is a sense of altruism.
    • Evacuation and relocation have psychological significance: impact of physical hazards and impact of family separation.


  4. Honeymoon phase:
    • Disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly.
    • Opportunities are available for a crisis team to gain entrée to impacted people and build relationships.


  5. Disillusionment phase:
    • Physical exhaustion may surface, and optimism turns into discouragement.
    • Increased need for substance abuse services may begin to surface.
    • Reality of losses sets in. Diminishing assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. Stress and fatigue take a toll. The larger community returns to business as usual.
    • The crisis team may have increased demand for services, as individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives.
    • People adjust to a new “normal,” while continuing to grieve losses. There is recognition of growth and opportunity.


  6. Reconstruction phase:
    • The reconstruction process may continue for years. Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives.
    • People adjust to a new "normal," while continuing to grieve losses. There is recognition of growth and opportunity.

It is important to note that the key to assisting those exposed to a disaster is to identify which of the six phases of a disaster a person is operating from at the time of an encounter. Not understanding these phases will decrease significantly the level of communication and trust one might otherwise establish. Additionally, at-risk-populations are particularly vulnerable.


At-Risk Populations

  • Children, youth, and adults with children
  • Older adults
  • People with prior trauma history
  • People with serious mental illnesses
  • People with disabilities
  • People with a history of substance abuse
  • Low-income groups
  • First responders and public safety workers

By utilizing the Phases of Disaster approach, all of us will be better equipped to help one another without the need for formal training in mental health, while at the same time dispelling the myths and rumors regarding mental illness. By doing so, we reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and are able to see those affected by a disaster as simply ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.


What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

After a trauma or life threatening event, it is common to have upsetting memories of what happened, have trouble sleeping, feel jumpy, or lose interest in things you used to enjoy. For some people these reactions do not go away on their own; they may even get worse over time. These people may have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


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