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Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event

Response Resources for Leaders

During a crisis, the public relies on leaders to make decisions, provide updates, and make recommendations affecting their safety and well-being. Leaders, including government officials and leaders in non-governmental organizations, community organizations, and religious groups play an important role in helping communities and individuals cope during and after a disaster. Learn how to help your community cope with a disaster.

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Hotline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.
  • People with deafness or hearing loss can use their preferred relay service to call 1-800-985-5990.

Recognize Common Reactions to Stressful Events:

It is natural to experience stress during a disaster or traumatic event. Look for these signs of stress in yourself, and members of your family and community:

  • Feelings of stress, grief, fear, or anger.
  • Struggle to carry out routine activities after a disaster and lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy.
  • Sleep disturbances, often including nightmares and thoughts about the disaster.
  • Changes in appetite, tiredness, headaches, and stomach aches.
  • A need to talk, often repeatedly, about events and feelings associated with the disaster.

How to Support Coping:

  • Address basic survival needs before focusing on emotional needs.
  • Start supporting survivors’ ability to cope by making them more comfortable. (Take simple steps like offering a phone, handing out blankets, and distributing water).
  • Expect that disaster relief assistance may be confusing to survivors. They may experience frustration, anger, and feelings of helplessness, and some of these feelings may be directed toward response agencies and representatives of these agencies.
  • Give opportunities for survivors to take actions to help themselves and their community in response efforts.
  • Provide as much information as possible and continue to update.

When to Refer Someone for Professional Help

These reactions signal a need for referral to a mental health professional or to the SAMHSA helpline: 

  • Confusion, memory loss, inability to state the current date.
  • Strong and constant feelings of sadness or strong anxiety that prevents completing regular tasks.
  • Hearing voices or seeing things that are not there.
  • Not regularly eating, bathing, or changing clothes or taking care of oneself.
  • Thoughts or desires to harm oneself or others or becoming violent.
  • Misuse of drugs or alcohol.
CDC’s Emergency Operations Center

Address basic safety needs first, then identify and address common stress reactions.


A woman speaking at a community meeting.

Give opportunities for survivors to take action to take care of themselves and others.

Tips for compassionate communication with victims of a crisis:

Through decisive, timely, and compassionate communication, leaders can reduce fear and anxiety.

  • Show Respect: Respectful communication is particularly important when people feel vulnerable.
  • Express empathy by acknowledging the emotions of those who are suffering.
  • Listen and allow emotional expressions or crying without interruption.
  • Do not answer questions outside of your expertise. Refer people to appropriate experts.
  • Use the same words as the person who is speaking. For example, if they say “passed” instead of “dead,” you should also say “passed.”
  • Avoid using examples from your own life and keep the focus on those currently suffering.
  • Look for cues in body language, and ask if they would like to be left alone, to talk to someone else, or to talk to a mental health professional or faith leader.

For additional resources on communicating with populations in crises visit the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communications (CERC) resources page.

An official seated at a table taking questions.

Express empathy and listen carefully.

The Role of Leaders in Community Coping and Recovery

During a crisis, a leader may become a symbol of order. Leaders can strengthen a community during a crisis.

  • Give members of the community actions they can take to help based on their strengths (i.e., check on neighbors, bring emergency supplies to the elderly, donate supplies, or volunteer to help rebuild).
  • Encourage survivors to take care of themselves and others.
  • Draw upon cultural and community values to bring people together.
  • Give fast and accurate updates.
  • Listen to the concerns of others.
  • Recognize responders’ contributions during and after a crisis. For more information on the role of leaders and community hardiness, visit the CERC Pandemic Influenza Manual.
  • As a leader, help responders that you supervise manage stress during a crisis.
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