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People have always given aid and comfort to each other during times of disaster. However, attempts to structure and professionalize this assistance are fairly recent developments. Disaster mental health, as an evolving field of practice and study, is a collection of interventions and practices that are designed to address incident-specific stress reactions, rather than ongoing or developmental mental health needs. Traditional mental health practice is based on a medical model, with a clinician seeing a patient in an office setting. Disaster mental health introduces a paradigm shift, requiring that practitioners (clinicians and indigenous helpers) work with individuals and whole communities in the field rather than in an office.
This is similar to the clinical conceptualization of community psychology. Disaster mental health practitioners, like community psychologists, are likely to view emotional distress through a sociological lens that focuses on normal experiences rather than on pathological responses following disaster.
Different mental health disciplines (e.g., social work, psychology, and psychiatry) have varying levels of exposure to systemic interventions used in community psychology models and practices. The difference in how disaster mental health practice is viewed is critical to the development of organized systems of intervention that address individual and collective mental health needs after a disaster. If disaster mental health is viewed from the sociological standpoint, intervention systems are more likely to reflect the kinds of supports that people rely upon in day-to-day living. If disaster mental health is approached using a medical model, intervention systems are designed to identify and treat maladaptive or pathological reactions to disaster. Disaster mental health interventions have evolved from both of these traditions.