UC Irvine Health tool measures mental health effects of disaster

CDC review of Napa quake relief effort assesses mental health risk

September 10, 2015

Measuring the complex mental health effects of a disaster is critical for health officials to begin treating traumatized survivors. UC Irvine Health trauma/disaster psychology expert Merritt D. Schreiber, PhD, has developed a system that in recent years has been used locally and nationally that enables hospitals, community clinics and providers, nurses, EMTs and first responders to measure the psychological impact of disaster experiences on survivors.

In this week’s issue of the CDC’s MMWR, an article entitled “Injuries and Traumatic Psychological Exposures Associated with the South Napa Earthquake – California, 2014” describes how Schreiber’s system, called PsySTART, was used in the initial relief efforts for the disaster. The goal of PsySTART is to determine whether survivors are at a high, medium or low level of risk for experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

“Rapid assessment of survivors’ traumatic exposures early after a disaster is particularly important to identify those most at risk for developing PTSD and other mental health issues,” Schreiber said.

PsySTART is a disaster mental health triage tool that involves asking survivors a series of questions about their experiences, including exposure to extreme events, traumatic loss, and secondary post-event impacts. The answers provide an evidence-based method for measuring the emotional and psychological injuries of disaster survivors.

“The data collected enables public health officials to deploy appropriate mental health recovery services that benefit both individual and population-based clinical outcomes,” Schreiber said. “The data collected also helps inform the planning response for future disasters. Since the earthquake, both Napa and Solano counties have launched new public outreach programs for what to do when disaster strikes, and have added mental health training programs for responders.”

PsySTART has been used by the CDC previously to assess the mental health effects of the earthquake-tsunami disasters in Thailand in 2004 and American Samoa in 2009, as well as by the American Red Cross as part of the 2012 Superstorm Sandy relief effort.

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