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Sense of Place:
A Model for Community Based Psychosocial Support Programs

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2008-1

Sense of Place:
A Model for Community Based Psychosocial Support Programs

Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz, Disaster Mental Health Officer, Puerto Rico Chapter, American Red Cross, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Email: jprewittdiaz@gmail.com
Anjana Dayal, Cooperation and Tracing Consultant, International Committee of the Red Cross
Keywords: Sense of place, psychosocial well-being, support

Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz

Disaster Mental Health Officer
Puerto Rico Chapter
American Red Cross
San Juan Puerto Rico

Anjana Dayal

Cooperation and Tracing Consultant,
International Committee of the Red Cross


The most catastrophic impact of natural disasters is an individual feeling of ‘loss of place’. Re-establishing ‘sense of place’ refers to psychosocial support activities which help people survive enormous personal losses following disasters. This paper discusses psychosocial support as a core component of the recovery and reconstruction efforts, by identifying ‘place’ as a physical parameter in which human competence is achieved and the techniques used to offset the trauma of displacement following disasters. Psychosocial support identifies survivors as the main actors in the reestablishment of ‘sense of place’ and as an internally-focused process in which the survivors prioritize their activities to plan, establish, and coordinate responses to protect and improve their own psychosocial well-being, instead of relying on outside help.

Sense of Place:
A Model for Community Based Psychosocial Support Programs


Psychosocial support is an accepted practice during the recovery and reconstruction phases following natural disasters. Saraceno (2006) suggests that psychosocial support addresses reactions to enormous losses, such as grief, displacement, disorientation, and alienation; which are often ignored in the immediate aftermath or forgotten during the reconstruction phase, of natural disasters. Psychosocial support builds on the knowledge and awareness of local needs and protective factors to provide psychological and social support to people involved in disaster situations. The aim is to enhance survivors’ resilience in achieving psychological competence by empowering them to overcome grief reactions and move forward in a collaborative fashion.

This paper is based on Quarantelli’s (1985) discussion of the cycle of disasters and contributes to the literature on natural disasters and trauma by presenting techniques used by the American Red Cross (AmCross) to help disaster-affected people’s transition from an emotional model of loss to a more proactive, practical model of reconstruction by identifying ‘place’ as a physical parameter in which human competence is achieved.

Loss of place implies a loss of confidence in the norms, networks, and mutual trust in the civil society that is supposed to protect and facilitate collaborative actions among the citizens and institutions (Perkins & Long, 2002). One of the psychosocial support activities supported by AmCross is in assisting the survivors in reestablishing ‘sense of place’.

Re-establishing ‘sense of place’ refers to psychosocial support activities, which help people to face the trauma of surviving personal losses after a disaster. Survivors examine the way they think and act in order to reconstruct their lives, as environmental, social, and ecological changes take place during the reconstruction phase following disasters. Psychosocial support identifies survivors as the main actors in the reestablishment of ‘sense of place’. Representatives of all sectors and groups from the community are actively engaged in making communal decisions, taking the time and making an effort to choose their goals, identifying resources, and making their action plans, all of which help to empower them and their communities.

Sense of Place

The term ‘place’ denotes humans’ subjective experiences of, and the meanings attributed to, the locations which they inhabit; have strong memories of; and thrive in (Bott, Cantrill & Myers, 2003). Steele (1981) noted several types of place experiences (immediate feelings and thoughts, views of the world, intimate knowledge of one spot, memories and personal identification) and several major characteristics of place (identity, history, memory, security, and vitality).

The recent tsunami highlighted the importance of memories in determining place attachment as well as of control over meaningful space, the manipulation of that space, and the re-creation of some essence of significant past settings in later life. Such acts have important psychological consequences: we are motivated to effect these changes in order to discover, confirm, and remember who we are. Our memories of, and self-expressions through, settings are profound reminders of self-identity, especially at times when that identity is weakened or threatened (Cantrill & Senecah, 2001).

Tuan (1974) used the term ‘rootedness’ to denote the merger of personality with place, based on living in a location for an extended length of time. Prohansky, Fabian, and Kaminoff (1983) defined ‘place identity’ as a relationship in which, through personal attachment to a geographically locatable place, a person acquires a sense of belonging and purpose in that place which gives meaning to life. Moore and Graefe (1994) considered ‘place identity’ to be the valuing of a particular setting for emotional-symbolic reasons, such as profound ‘first’ experiences, or being from a particular place.

Loss of Place: Most Serious Impact of Disasters

The most catastrophic impact of a disaster is an individual feeling of ‘loss of place’. Fullilove (1996) suggests that any catastrophic event such as a disaster causes a loss of place and triggers the need to survive. Human survival depends on having a location that is ‘good enough’ to support life. People interacting in a psychosocial environment are sensitive to spoken and unspoken dynamics of power. Messages of acceptance and mutual respect are essential for the creation of strong community networks. Those that do not bind the individual to the group may leave people feeling isolated, without a sense of common purpose. Over time, survivors develop a unique perspective of what their ‘place’ is.

Re-establishing Place Following Disasters

Psychosocial distress is often more reflective of the difficulties and hardships encountered during the recovery and reconstruction phases following disasters (Hutton, 2001). The psychosocial programme devised by AmCross engages in different approaches for providing relief by actively involving communities in the recovery and reconstruction process to establish a ‘sense of place’.

There are several steps which need to be taken with the community as the main actor: (1) inputs from all community members through community mapping exercises, (2) systematic information to assist the community in prioritizing its perceived needs, (3) identification of community resources and human capital, and (4) involvement of community members as executors of the projects, i.e. planning, developing, monitoring, and reporting. (Prewitt Diaz & Dayal, 2007).

The table below presents the psychosocial reactions and needs of survivors as well as responses within the continuum of a disaster. Disaster response takes place in several stages: from ‘root shock’ (the immediate response), to rehabilitation and reconstruction. There are different stages of human responses during the recovery and reconstruction phases that are similar to the phases of community development. In effect, the establishment of self is nothing more than reconstructing a sense of ‘place’ (i.e. from an individual response to gaining a collective feeling of community) and concludes with the development of individual and community competence.

Table 1: Various Phases of a Disaster from a Psychosocial Perspective

Emergency Phase Recovery Phase Reconstruction Phase  
Feelings and common reactions of survivors


Alienation Multiple loss  

Mourning the loss of connection between the survivor and the beloved place

Acceptance of loss and striving to achieve comfort

Beginning to bond with the new place, new neighbours, and social structures

Engaging in rituals from the old place, and rituals from the new place. Both are essential to the process of psychological rebuilding.

Manipulation of the environment to meet the needs of children, women, adolescents, the elderly, and population with special needs.  

A feeling that grief reactions have been addressed

Feelings of enhanced psychological competence

Increasing feelings of ownership

Feelings of being included and settled  

Needs of survivors
Know what type of assistance is available

Know how and whom to approach for assistance

Understand why each person’s assistance package may be different than their neighbours

Know what to do if they are not satisfied with their assistance package, and where to lodge a grievance

Know how the aid effort is progressing; how money is being spent; and what problems are being experienced elsewhere

Know what resources the community has so that it can continue to rebuild on them

Accurately identifying personal, social, and cultural factors that encourage natural recovery

Participatory appraisal, such as, mapping, brain storming, and prioritization of needs

Survivors and Communities building on their strengths and solidarities in developing their own capacity

Community involvement in planning, participation, and implementation of multiple projects


Knowledge of the project development cycle

Reconstitution of order in social setting

Reestablishment of a health promoting habitat

Affirmation of each person’s sense of belonging to that place


Psychosocial support responses

Psychological first aid and self-care

Participatory decision making

Inclusion of socially excluded individuals/groups  

Recording indigenous concepts and terms to describe stress (language of distress)

Looking at a whole set of reactions: psychosomatic, emotional, behavioral, and relational changes

Implementing multiple projects to initiate and enhance the sense of belonging with new surrounding (health, water and sanitation, disaster preparedness, etc.)

Survivors are involved in monitoring, evaluation, and reporting  

Rebuilding human communities requires attention to social and emotional problems beyond the infrastructural support.

Reconnection leads to restoring natural networks effective for health, building resilience, and everyday functioning

Diligent planning leads to an environment of physical and psychosocial wellbeing of human as well as the natural, environment.

Surviving survivors to express their feelings.  

Participatory Assesments for Re-establishing Sense of Place

The AmCross psychosocial programme focuses on engaging survivors in assessing their strengths (Kretzman & Mcknight, 1993). Only through knowing the strengths can disaster-affected people come together as a community and address their concerns.

In reestablishing ‘sense of place’ to offset the trauma of displacement following natural disasters, participatory assessment is one of the most frequently used techniques to determine risks and identify community resources (Prewitt Diaz, Trotter & Rivera, 1989). The purpose of participatory assessment is to give a voice to those community groups that are traditionally not heard (Bodeen & Hilliker, 1999). Participatory planning provides individuals with an opportunity to have inputs in their future, be it the construction of a house, the community playground, or the place where water stations will be located. In this section, four forms of participatory assessment are discussed: (1) key informants, (2) community mapping, (3) community inventories, and (4) focused groups.

Key Informants
Traditionally, key informants are elected officials and community leaders. Another set of key informants recommended are individuals who have traditionally not had a voice in the community, such as a woman who is not allowed by her husband to attend public meetings sharing her views, or the elderly, bedridden, or differently-abled persons (Prewitt Diaz, Trotter, & Rivera, 1989). In the community, participatory planning and recognition of risks takes a long time. The Red Cross volunteers work their way through existing social groups, finding more and more people to talk to, and being allowed into more and more homes. This process takes considerable time since virtually no one is willing to talk in depth about his or her disaster reactions and subsequent experiences on the first visit. Time, familiarity, and ‘going with the flow’ are needed until enough rapport is established so that all the information can be triangulated with as many members of the community as possible.

Community Mapping
The first step in getting the community to look at itself in the process of establishing ‘sense of place’ is through community mapping. In India ‘chapatti mapping’ is the psychosocial programmes’ metaphor to visualize the relation between disaster affected people, family, neighbours, community, organizational and institutional resources. All members of the community should be encouraged to contribute towards developing the map. The disaster affected people can memorize place in relation to the events (identify risks), develop a sequence of ordering landmarks and buildings that they will need to survive in the future, and how to change things around so that the new community provides more safety and convenience. Colours, shapes, and dimensions offer an opportunity for people to share their knowledge.

Effective community mapping consists of three main components:
(1) The community committee, comprising Red Cross paid and volunteer staff, community facilitators, traditional healers, and trusted elderly and under-represented groups, participate in a physical walk through the community. The participants identify activities taking place along the way. If there is a camera available, pictures may be taken as the group goes along.

(2) The actual mapping is the next component. Participants are grouped into small diverse groups (women, children, adolescents, and elderly men) and develop separate maps. Next, all the small groups prepare a large three-dimensional map, combining and synthesizing what is included in all small group maps. The map includes communal facilities, personal and family buildings, assets and liabilities. Valuable information over and above that shown on ‘scientifically’ produced maps can be obtained from maps drawn by local people. These maps show the perspective of the drawer and reveal much about local knowledge of resources, land use and settlement patterns, or household characteristics.

It could be that some facilities are made or drawn before others, and some are larger in proportion. This gives the community members some insight into what issues may be more important than others. Photographs of the map may be taken for future reference. This activity allows the disaster affected people to get a first-time factual perception of their location, and facilitates a bottoms-up approach to delineation and zoning of their new ‘place’. It is a way of bringing together spatial information with people’s mental map of the new ‘place’ (Greenwood, 2007).

(3) The final component of the community mapping exercise comes with a brain storming session about the new ideas for the community, and as a result, a shared vision for the future ‘place’. A graphic plan for the ‘future’ of the community (i.e. schools, houses, parks, playground, health post, community centre, and places of worship) is developed. When the disaster affected people are ready to design their new ‘place’, they must identify and prioritize the risk, opportunities, and human capital that are needed to reestablish themselves in the new ‘place’ (community). An accurate appraisal by the community members is necessary before they can decide upon priorities and agree on a project to start action.

Community Inventories
Community inventories refers to an approach of learning from the knowledge and experience of local people. This process involves local people with different backgrounds, experiences, and psychosocial orientations to work together to collect information about themselves (MHPSS, 2007). Community members do not work with a set of specific questions, but prepare a checklist of topics to cover and work from that list so that all topics are covered. The tools explore assets and liabilities in the community; available facilities and how well they are working; potential and opportunities; threats and hindrances, both current and possible; and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the community (OXFAM, 2004). This active method is a valuable psychosocial tool in that it involves the disaster affected people in collaborative community analysis of problems; is oriented toward future actions; all segments of the community are engaged in the decision making process; ownership over projects and facilities are the community’s; and the process assures longer-term sustainability.

Focus Groups
There may be a range of experiences and opinions among members of the community and/or sensitivity in divulging information to outsiders or to others within the community. Focus groups are most useful when the objective is to: (1) hear people share their post-disaster experiences, (2) understand the survivors’ expectations and perspectives on possible solutions, and (3) elicit what ideas the group members have for reestablishing ‘place’. Separate sessions for different interest groups are conducted first, their contributions carefully recorded, and different groups then brought together to share their special concerns. Special focus groups provide the opportunity to work separately with different groups that may find it difficult at first to work together; the aim being to bring them together eventually.

Processes for Re-establishing ‘Sense of Place’

Reestablishing ‘sense of place’ is an internally focused process, where the disaster affected people prioritize their activities instead of relying on outside help. It is a relationship building activity that brings all community members together, and in identifying assets, the disaster-affected people identify the human capital that they have in their community. In this section are discussed five such participatory processes.

The cultural approach
Culture refers to the customs, spiritual and religious beliefs, way of life, and social organization of a particular society or a group. Looking at culture from the perspective of the community itself assists in establishing the ‘sense of place’. Community members look into existing networks of support within and identify their cultural needs and activities. The process involves the elderly sharing histories with the younger generation, trying to find ways to bring the community together, and identifying what the community means by the ‘language of distress’ and the achievement of well-being.

The cultural sense of place is denoted by activities like community gatherings where information exchange and group learning about customs and traditions take place; and the community gets together to discuss and learn from its common history. The cultural approach usually takes the longest time to reestablish a ‘sense of place’ in the community because it involves history as it uncovers itself (Prewitt Diaz, Trotter & Rivera, 1989).

The ecological approach
The ecological ‘sense of place’ connotes the trees, bushes, and other aspects which were part of the community before the disaster. It implies all those things which were ecologically bound and were an integral component of the community but are no longer present due to the disaster.

The indicators of ecological ‘sense of place’ are the community’s knowledge of native plants and wildlife ; the extent to which the natural environment was disturbed or destroyed by the disaster; plans of the community to preserve natural resources for future generations; and the extent to which community members actively participate in environmental conservation and restoration activities. Helping people establish their ecological ‘sense of place’ is first, to identify ecological segments of the community that were destroyed by the disaster, by utilizing the community’s knowledge of native plants and wildlife; exploring and explaining the interaction between individuals and the environment; comfort level between individuals and the environment; and then bringing those ecological segments back into the community.

The collaborative approach
Collaboration is an important undertaking in establishing ‘sense of place’ within the community networks. It is best exemplified by the attempt of the community towards problem-solving activities. Collaboration is marked by how community members value diversity and practice tolerance; the extent to which the community has the power of self-governance; whether decision-making is transparent and inclusive; and whether information/training is available for decision-making and mutual empowerment skills.

This approach brings all members of the community together for problem mapping by determining the attributes of a model community and then taking decisions about what activities are common to all which they would like to engage in (e.g., building a road or bridge, using an empty lot to prepare a volleyball court, painting an old building to make a community centre, etc.). These are activities that can readily be engaged in and bring forth a mechanism that establishes ‘sense of place’, thus leading to achievement of well-being.

Identification of human capital
Identification of human capital as resources in the community is one of the important prerequisites for establishing ‘sense of place’. A ‘resource’ is used as an input for the production of some other desired output. This approach involves assisting the community in identifying resources that exist within, in terms of human capital, which could be utilized for undertaking projects benefiting the community in the long run.

Potential resources may include, for example, a retired carpenter who may be willing to train younger members of the community, some unused land that could be used for a communal facility, unemployed youth who can provide energy and enthusiasm, some farmer or other food producer and some people willing to prepare food for communal labourers who donate their time and energy, and/or some trustworthy community members willing to put in time and efforts to design a community project.

Identification of long-term solutions
Ultimately, disaster-affected communities must be the architects of their own psychosocial recovery. The community has to develop long-term solutions by nurturing whatever resources and strengths it possesses and making them sustainable at both individual as well as community levels. Ryan, Agnitsch, Zhao and Mullick (2005) suggest that an adequate measure of community attachment is participation in solution-focused activities. Voluntary participation in solution-focused activities reinforces the sustainability of community activities and projects.

Further Development of “Sense of place” as a Psychosocial Framework for Disaster Responses

‘Re-establishment of sense of place’ programme as an attempt to construct an integrated approach addressing people’s physical, psychological and social needs using the psychosocial approach is the point of entry into affected communities. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) (2006) has conducted an evaluation of recovery operations after six major disasters in the last three years. The report suggests that many countries affected by disasters have compromised health situations by failing to provide an integrated approach which addresses people’s real physical, psychological, and social needs. One area that the IFRC has made considerable impact is in providing psychosocial support in post disaster situations.

The evolution of psychosocial support programmes (PSP) has corresponded with the increasing severity of disasters and the emergence of international guidelines. The AmCross International Services has a ten-year history in developing PSPs. In Posoltega, Nicaragua (1998), the AmCross PSP coordinated the response of 21 local NGOs to a major mudslide which killed over 2,000 people and left over 13,000 injured (Prewitt Diaz & Saballos Ramirez, 2000). Lessons learned as a result of this experience focused on types of intervention and early coordination among stakeholders. In another major disaster, i.e. the El Salvador earthquake (2001), AmCross focused on developing an immediate psychosocial response mechanism and psychological first aid was used as a tool during the relief and response period (Jaquemet, 2001). In 2003, the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) and AmCross defined the psychosocial personnel needs during a disaster and designed a course of study for technicians, specialists, and professionals (Prewitt Diaz, Srinivasa Murthy & Lakshminarayana, 2004).

Standards and guidance
The 2004 Asian tsunami precipitated a discussion among international NGOs about the development and adoption of standardized mental health and psychosocial support following disasters. Since then, psychosocial support in emergency response guidelines finds place in standard tools and guidance documents; in addition, the SPHERE Project (2004), the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergency (INEE) (2004), and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS/IASC) (2007) provide further guidance.

The SPHERE Project defines ‘social intervention’ as that which aims primarily at social effects. ‘Psychological intervention’ means intervention that aims at psychological (or psychiatric) effect. It acknowledges that social interventions have secondary psychological effects and that psychological interventions have secondary social effects, as the term ‘psychosocial’ suggests (p. 291). INEE defines psychosocial support as a methodology that fosters the reconstruction of local structures (family, community groups, and schools) which have been destroyed or weakened by a disaster, so that they can provide appropriate and effective support to those suffering severe stress resulting from ‘loss of place’ (Nicolai, 2003). The most recent guidance for Mental Health and Psycho-Social Support (MHPSS) developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2007) enables humanitarian actors and communities to plan, establish, and coordinate a set of minimum responses to protect and improve people’s mental health and psychosocial well-being in an emergency.


Psychosocial support is recognized as an important component of recovery and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters. The forms and methods of such support have grown in response to the severity of disasters and have been refined to suit specific local needs.

Community resilience projects or the reestablishment of ‘sense of place’ is a form of empowerment of the community in moving ahead. For sustainable reconstruction efforts, the community is the entity that should make choices about what needs to be done for rebuilding life.

Survivors are encouraged to be aware of their worldview being modified and examine their ways of thinking and acting in order to establish ‘sense of place’. They are actively engaged in making their own communal decisions, taking the time and making an effort to choose their goals, identify resources, and make their own community action plans, thus empowering themselves and their communities in achieving psychosocial competence.


The AmCross programme seeking to re-establish sense of place through a participatory approach is a first attempt to construct an integrated approach to enhance psychosocial well-being and community resilience. More research is needed to develop an evidence-based framework about the connections and inter-linkages between establishment of sense of place, community participation, and mental health, psychosocial well-being and health in communities.


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Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz & Anjana Dayal © 2008. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author/s also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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