Using the Internet to Assist Disaster Mental Health Efforts

by Storm A. King

Using the Internet to Assist Disaster Mental Health Efforts

Suggested Therapeutic Uses of the Internet in DMH

On-line virtual communities and activities expand the social contacts available to the participant. More relationships are possible, with people that are not available to share with any other way. "The number of and diversity of social contacts" can be greatly extended by computer social networks (Wellman, 1995). In times of great stress it is social contacts that people turn to, to get the buffering effect and the emotional support they need. Those people already connected on-line when a national disaster strikes are going to reach out to each other for information and support. There are ways that DMH teams can facilitate victims of disasters in using Internet resources to help cope with a tragedy.

The kind of grassroots Internet efforts that have accompanied recent major disasters contain rumors, misinformation and even bad advice. This is a reflection of the of social exchange of information that occurs during such an incident off line, but the broadcast nature of virtual communities makes this problem more significant. If DMH organizations were prepared, official moderated IRC channels and e-mail discussion groups could be created the moment a disaster strikes. This would not stop the grassroots efforts, but it would offer a needed alternative. Moderated groups (where messages must be approved before dissemination) are more consistent sources of both information and emotional support.

Individuals in crisis from a disaster trauma that contacted a central clearinghouse staffed by trained professionals could be invited into a closed IRC channel for one to one counseling. It is reasonable to expect a counselor to be able to keep up with the typed messages and respond to 3 or 4 such channels at one time. Nightmares and sleep disturbances are an expected reaction to disaster trauma. The 24 hour availability of the net makes it a great resource for treating flare-ups as they occur.


PTSD is a serious, debilitating failure to cope successfully with overwhelming stress. The DSM - 4 lists the lifetime occurrence prevalence rates at 1% to 14%. In populations considered at risk, such as disaster victims, this rate is much higher. CISD is being used extensively to increase peoples ability to cope with the kinds of extraordinary stressful events that have been associated with the development of PTSD. The social support component of a successful CISD intervention can not be understated.

Virtual communities are computer supported social networks that can easily provide "emotional support, companionship, information and a sense of belonging from the comfort of ones own home" (Wellman, 1995). The therapeutic value to participants of such virtual forums designed to give and receive emotional support has been documented (King, 1994; Finn, 1994).

Internet access is by no means universal at this point. Possession of a home personal computer is out of reach for many, and will remain so for some time. However, the trend is clear. In time, communicating over the Internet will be part of most peoples' daily life.

The kind of Internet provided professional therapy advocated here has its own set of ethical and legal dilemmas. The nature of the therapeutic alliance that can be formed by the exchange of text is unstudied at this point. There are certainly drawbacks, but the advantages mentioned here deserve to be examined. Recent advances in technology have allowed the creation of new forms of social interaction. This demands a corresponding reevaluation of the means by which large scale, emergency mental health efforts can be conducted.


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Storm A. King is a Ph. D. candidate in a clinical psychology program. His current research projects are designed to determine the therapeutic value of virtual support groups, the self-help, mutual-aid groups that meet electronically. His has also proposed various ways that psychologists and mental health workers can use computer mediated communication to facilitate individual and group therapy efforts, and has written about the ethical considerations involved in the use of human subjects in the study of the psychology of virtual communities.