Appropriate Psychosocial Support in International Emergencies

Wessells, M. G. (2009). Do no harm: toward contextually appropriate psychosocial support in international emergencies. American Psychologist, 64(8), 842-854.

When international disasters hit, well-meaning U.S. psychologists are often eager to volunteer to provide aid. Unfortunately, this process of “parachuting” may cause unintended harm, according to Peace Psychology expert, Michael Wessells (2009). These psychologists often have no experience in international emergencies, little understanding of the local culture, and no relationship with agencies or individuals in the affected areas. According to Wessells, some of the potential problems include (1) using scarce resources, (2) creating a security risk in that the presence of US citizens may be seen as a political act, (3) inadvertently supporting a specific political agenda, since psychologists may be unaware of the power dynamics of the region, (4) creating unrealistic expectations, when assessments may not bring immediate benefits, (5) providing culturally inappropriate interventions or interventions that may impair recovery, such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), (6) stigmatizing those who receive assistance, (7) implementing inadequate informed consent procedures, (8) creating helplessness or dependency, and (9) over-distributing resources to a single segment of the population, such as child soldiers. Wessells recommends that outside disaster workers be provided with improved training and specific guidelines for implementing psychosocial interventions in emergency contexts.

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Information on psychologists who provide assistance in disaster situations is available from The APA Disaster Response Network.