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How to Handle Hopelessness and Helplessness

This information is for historic and reference purposes only.  Content has not been updated since the last reviewed date at the bottom of this page.
Stylized words,

Communications that challenge hopelessness and helplessness are crucial during a crisis. If communities allow their feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, and dread to grow unchecked, they may be less motivated and less able to take actions that could help themselves and their loved ones.

Hopelessness is the feeling that nothing can be done by anyone to make the situation better. People may accept that a threat is real, but that threat may loom so large that they feel the situation is hopeless. Helplessness is the feeling that they themselves have no power to improve their situation. If people feel helpless to protect themselves, they may withdraw mentally or physically and fail to take actions to protect themselves and their families from the emergency.

Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) principles teach the importance of addressing hopelessness and helplessness during a public health emergency. Instead of trying to eliminate a community’s emotional responses to the crisis, communicators should help people manage their negative feelings through actions. Actions can help the public feel empowered to manage parts of their lives in the midst of chaos. Taking an action during a crisis can help to restore a sense of control and overcome feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Scientists are working hard to learn important details about the Zika virus (Zika) outbreak; unfortunately, uncertainties may contribute to feelings of fear, anxiety, and confusion. This could lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in those potentially most affected by Zika. Some women may feel there is nothing they can do to reduce the risk of becoming infected while they are pregnant, because Zika virus is so widespread in their area. By promoting actions to avoid mosquito bites and sexual transmission, we can help reduce their risk and increase their sense of empowerment.

As much as possible, communicators should advise people to take actions that are constructive and directly relate to the crisis they’re facing. These actions can promote productive behaviors to help keep people safe.

For more information on CERC visit our website and check out the CERC manual. You can also read previous CERC Corners.

Have you used CERC in your work? To share your CERC stories, e-mail cercrequest@cdc.gov. Your stories may appear in future CERC Corners.

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