Emergency psychology

This branch of psychology operates in conditions of great impact on people and entire populations that suddenly break in, creating strong psychological distress at different levels.

The emergency psychology is a branch of psychological profession not well known but extremely important as it acts at the forefront commonly definie “emergency situations”.


Who is the emergency psychologist

The emergency psychologist is a master’s degree in psychology , qualified for the profession after passing the state exam and registered in the professional register in section A. Subsequently, to better learn the operational lines and skills in the emergency field, held master’s or specialist courses on the subject. 


The emergency psychologist can work as a freelancer and bring his support in the event of an emergency, or be an employee of the NHS at the local AST, of the police force after passing a competition or other armed forces, be a consultant for associations or institutions such as Civil Protection or 118 and work as a researcher in the private sector or in the university environment. Often there is an intervention of this figure voluntarily.


Emergency psychology when it intervenes

Emergency psychology applies the knowledge and tools available to professionals in situations that break in and upset, even seriously, the daily routine . It therefore intervenes in defined phenomena, in fact, emergencies: large-scale events such as natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, etc.), technological disasters, health emergencies (such as epidemics and pandemics ) and socio-political but also situations such as serious accidents, torture, robberies , abuse , etc.


All circumstances that break normal everyday life and can generate relapses , even important ones, on a psychological level , putting an individual ‘s resilience skills to the test .


The action is therefore aimed at supporting the people involved in the circumstance of emergencies and more generally the community with the aim of considering the experience, resources and difficulties and helping to restore a condition of well-being and return to normal , in short, medium and long term.


Emergency psychology: intervention recipients

Emergency psychology, however, does not only deal with the direct victims of disasters, but the range of action is wider in order to support all those who act in the emergency and gravitate around it . Recipients can therefore be identified at different “” levels “:

  • First-level victims: people directly involved (e.g. people who lose their homes during an earthquake, infected and healed in a pandemic, etc.)
  • Second level victims: friends, relatives and all those who attended the event (e.g. relatives of pandemic victims, etc.
  • Third level victims: rescuers and all those who work on the front line to bring help and work in an emergency (eg law enforcement, firefighters, civil protection, health workers, etc.)
  • Fourth level victims: the whole community involved in the disaster with help to the institutions and in the planning and organization of the aid actions
  • Fifth level victims: people who experience emotional and psychological difficulties although not directly involved in other emergency levels (for example people who show excessive concern up to levels of pathological anxiety and panic attacks in emergency health situations, although not directly involved like sick or relatives, friends of sick people, etc.)
  • Sixth level victims: people who could have been first level victims (for example: people most at risk in a pandemic they escaped from, people who survived the earthquake because they were away from home, etc.)


In the emergency therefore there are many factors and individuals to be taken into consideration in structuring the intervention, each with its own peculiarities and particularities and its own discomfort or resources. Regardless of the role and level of involvement, in fact, each person reacts in a unified way to the circumstance , with different levels of resilience, reaction to stress, support and skills.


Possible reactions in an emergency

In the uniqueness and singularity of the reaction of individuals it is however good to consider some possible consequences on the psychological, but also physical and behavioral level that may emerge.


From a psychological point of view, emotional reactions of fear are frequent up to real anguish and anxiety , sadness , lack of energy and desire to do, sense of guilt , shame ,  anger , tension, loss of hope, despair, insomnia , loss of memory and difficulty concentrating.


High levels of stress are frequent with the possible onset of true Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder both in the victims directly involved and in the operators who act in the emergency, at risk, also of burnout at the continuation of the emergency.


On the physical plane may arise fatigue, respiratory difficulties often to psychosomatic effects in the high arousal, headaches, muscle tension, dizziness , tremors, palpitations, gastrointestinal problems such as nausea and diarrhea, etc.


Compared to behavior, there may be difficulties in managing everyday life, nervous reactions that affect personal relationships and not only, as well as your own efficiency and well-being, work problems, taking dysfunctional behaviors such as alcohol intake , substances and cigarette consumption , little adaptive reactions of avoidance and excessive reaction to some conditions, etc.
Obviously they are only some of the possible effects that can arise.


What does an emergency psychologist do

The emergency psychologist can act on several levels that wind between prevention, the clinic and actual support and research in order to increase and improve knowledge and means of intervention.


In practice, the action is varied and considers the evaluation of the characteristics of the population involved in the emergency , the strengths, the resources and the possible criticalities and needs.


It investigates the general and individual experience in order to provide support and operate from a diagnostic perspective to provide more targeted and specific interventions to prevent or treat more or less acute situations and inconveniences.


The psychological and psychosocial first aid intervention on the ground is therefore very important, aimed at giving an immediate response to the emergency to the difficulties of the people, but also the possible monitoring and, if necessary, the indication to other specialists of the most serious situations in the medium and long term, therefore, for example, indicate more specific and targeted psychotherapeutic paths.


Support groups , individual and / or family interviews, self-help and psychotherapy groups, etc. can be organized .


Fundamental is also the action of support and support of the operators and participation in the organization of the intervention, with training and information activities both preventive and during an emergency.


The idea is therefore the action in a multidisciplinary perspective in order to provide a 360 degree service that considers all those involved in the condition of strong impact, the individual needs and the necessary and functional actions to restore a psychological condition, but not only, as soon as possible optimal.


In the health emergency experienced by our country in this period, but also by the whole world, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the figure of the psychologist is important because of the strong impact of this virus on people’s lives in depth, levels of stress, on the extreme working rhythms especially of those who work in the front line, on the difficulty or better impossibility of greeting their dear victims of the disease, as well as anxiety, fear, concern for the future, for themselves and their loved ones.


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