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Issue 1997-1

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies

Volume 1997/1 - Editorial

Disaster and Trauma Studies: Developing an Australasian perspective

Douglas Paton

In many areas within Australasia, natural disasters will continue to represent a threat to individuals and communities. Moreover, within progressively more complex societies large scale technological and human-made catastrophes are likely to increase in incidence. New sources of disaster or trauma are increasingly being identified and understanding must encompass how they impact on organisation, social system, culture and individual as well as the time frames over which impact occurs, be they acute or extended (Raphael, 1996). The pursuit of this goal requires the realistic appraisal of the essential social, political, individual and institutional aspects of disaster response.

The destruction and loss of life generated by disasters is widely acknowledged, as is the widespread psychological, social, community and economic problems they leave in their wake. Notwithstanding, the helping philosophies and interventions implemented to manage disaster have tended to be technological and/or economic in nature, with the underlying assumption being that social and psychological impacts will be managed in the process. Fortunately, increased academic and professional interest in understanding disaster and trauma impact is rectifying this imbalance and is supporting pressures for inter- and multi-disciplinary and integrated approaches to definitions and interventions. However, there is still some way to go before the objective of creating a truly integrated system is realised. Realising the goal of an integrated disaster response capability will require the co- ordination of the activities of diverse agencies and professions many of whom have little contact in disaster contexts, let alone under the circumstances in which disaster planning activities are undertaken.

This issue is actively being explored within Australia and New Zealand. The outcomes of this exercise are awaited with interest. Moreover, international interest in this process suggests that, if successful, the outcome of activities being undertaken within the Australasian region could represent a model that would be adopted in other regions. While this journal will not play a direct part in this process, many of its contributors will and it is hoped that the journal will provide a vehicle for developing an agenda of issues to be discussed in the pursuit of integrated disaster and trauma management initiatives and provide opportunities for the members of diverse agencies and professions to publish both independently and collaboratively. The journal will support this initiative and promote the collaboration of the agencies and individuals involved, and act as a medium for the dissemination of the outcome of these endeavours to a wide audience.

The potential of inter-and multi-disciplinary and collaborative programmes to bear fruit is already evident. For example, McClure and Williams (1996) discussed how the effectiveness of mitigation programmes for minimising earthquake damage was strongly influenced by the social psychological characteristics of risk populations. This work indicates scope for social scientists, urban planners and geologists to work together to enhance the effectiveness of programmes that are of interest to all of them. The collaborative whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In New Zealand, Massey University and the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences have forged collaborative research links with the objective of exploring the relationships between the physical and social aspects of disaster impact. This collaboration will also lead to the development of training courses for industry and government that will promote integrated disaster management. At the same time close collaboration between these agencies and Civil Defence is ensuring that disaster management systems and the expertise of those responsible for their administration accommodate inter- and multi-disciplinary perspectives and provide a basis for an integrated disaster response mechanism.

As its title indicates, this journal is not just concerned with publishing work relating to disasters. It will also provide a forum for discussion and debate on psychological trauma. In keeping with the pioneering cultural ethos of Australia and New Zealand, the region has played a prominent role in the development of our understanding of psychological trauma. Consequently, the growth of interest in, and recognition of, the individual and social consequences of trauma and disaster can be attributed to the pioneering work of, for example, Beverly Raphael, Sandy McFarlane, and Tony Taylor. The work of these and many other social scientists has highlighted the need for psychological and community factors to be accommodated within definitions of disaster. Their work has increased awareness of the need for expanded disaster management initiatives and provided ideas about their nature and the direction these initiatives should take. The growing threat to many communities within the region in relation to both natural and human-made disaster and traumatic events makes further work in this area imperative. Moreover, considerable diversity in hazard-risk status across the region, with respect to several salient dimensions (e.g, frequency of exposure, nature of hazard, demographics etc) affords considerable opportunity for both intra-and inter-disciplinary research.

The benefits that can accrue from promoting multi-disciplinary debate has been realised in the study of psychological trauma. The membership of professional societies such as the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Australasian Critical incident Stress Association, and the National Association for Loss and Grief reflect diverse professional and academic interests. The expansion of these societies is indicative of the growing academic interest in disaster and trauma and an acknowledgement of the valuable role that mental health professionals play in response to traumatic events and disasters. If the opportunities that accrue from the promotion of multi- and inter-disciplinary collaboration are to be fully realised we need a forum for the review and discussion of issues pertaining to research and practice and the means to encourage debate and comment on events and issues. It is hoped that this journal can complement the work of these organisations and provide an additional forum for the discussion and dissemination of the work, ideas and experience of the members of these organisations and others.

At present the focus is biased towards Australia and New Zealand. It is intended to expand the editorial scope and coverage by further increasing the involvement of colleagues in South-East Asia to contribute their expertise and so make this journal a truly Australasian resource. Links with others parts of the world will also be forged with the appointment of associate editors in North America and Europe. In addition to expanding journal coverage, it is hoped that these links will increase opportunities for researchers and practitioners to collaborate in cross-cultural and international research.

The Australasian region is itself characterised by considerable culture, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity. At present, much of the knowledge we have accumulated tends to reflect that obtained from western, predominantly Anglo-Saxon, populations, and populations have often been perceived with an unrealistically inferred homogeneity. A need for further work in this area has been recognised (van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). As professionals working in this area, we need to be aware of the implications of this constraint on our work and the generalisability of our ideas and findings. We are well placed to undertake work designed to explore the implications of the diversity inherent within our region for our definitions of core constructs such as psychological trauma. This diversity also affords opportunities for exploring the relationship between population heterogeneity and risk status, for intervention development and administration, and for the development of integrated disaster and trauma management interventions. Nor is this diversity an issue that is only of concern at the level of national differences. There is a clear need to develop a better understanding of the nature and implications of cultural and demographic diversity at domestic levels.

Another trend that an Australasian audience are well placed to pursue involves exploring the implications of the social context for preparation and reactivity. While it is generally acknowledged that disasters and traumatic events do affect communities and organisations this is often achieved by extrapolating from the level of the individual and inferring an understanding of impact at these 'macro' levels rather than seeking to understand impact as a consequence of its occurring within the context of a complex social system. Critical to the assessment and management of disasters is an understanding of how the unique frames of reference that stem from involvement within a complex social system influence perceptions and hazards and their potential for generating negative health impact (Raphael, 1996). This point reiterates the need to develop systems and operating environments capable of managing all aspects of disaster response and recovery, promoting co-ordination and co-operation between agencies, and which recognise and accommodate the role of the community itself in determining to a significant extent how this will take place for their own society.

While mental health professionals are rightly concerned with the identification and treatment of psychopathology, care must be exercised in this process not to superimpose pathology where none exists or where other support resources may represent sufficient remedy. In certain circumstances we underestimate the capability of individuals and social systems to heal themselves and we neglect them as potentially powerful recovery resources. This suggests a need for community disaster and trauma management to take account of community dynamics and the manner in which they interact with a disaster and the systems implemented to assist recovery. A failure to accommodate these factors within recovery assistance planning systems may generate unforeseen and undesirable consequences. For instance the political dimensions may control what can be done, by whom, for whom, for how long, and bureaucracies may facilitate or, as is often the case, bring additional frustration, creating a second disaster or prolonging the initial one (Raphael, 1996). Intervention strategies should, where possible, involve the mobilisation of resources and support networks that are internal to the community, rather than relying on external support and the imposition of solutions on communities (Paton & Bishop, 1996).

A similar argument can be applied to traumatic incidents occurring within professional and workplace contexts. Research in this area has highlighted the need to consider traumatic outcomes in terms of the interaction between the individual and the complex social systems they inhabit, with growing interest in exploring the preventative and/or support capabilities afforded by the characteristics and operating procedures inherent within the social system. For example, professionals working in disaster and traumatic contexts may experience disasters and traumatic events in a more positive light than was previously considered (Moran & Colless, 1995). By more actively researching the factors underpinning positive resolution and adaptation, valuable insights into the nature of the personal, event and environmental precursors of adaptation can be described. Once identified, they can serve as a basis for the screening, preparation and support of those likely to experience exposure to disaster or traumatic events repeatedly. This work is indicative of a trend towards exploring the salutogenic characteristics of the environments within which disaster or traumatic exposure occurs (Paton & Bishop, 1996; Paton & Stephens, 1996). This information can contribute to the design of environments whose inherent characteristics will prevent or minimise adverse reactions.

Moreover, research undertaken on the basis of this philosophy will furnish information that can be used to facilitate more effective use of support interventions for those groups and individuals who do experience problems. The critical issue that arises here involves defining what individual, social, organisational and community factors constrain or hinder the use of recovery resources such as social support, debriefing, coping and treatment (Raphael, 1996). For example, organisational and cultural constraints may be operating through perceptions, expectations and unwritten rules about performance and the discussion of emotions and feelings. Once these factors have been delineated, and the mechanisms by which they exert their influence defined, steps can be taken to develop more effective recovery management processes (Paton & Stephens, 1996). By adopting such a framework, the important role of potential helpers, counsellors and therapists, as well as partners, family members, colleagues and friends is also indicated.

This is not to say that we should neglect the fact that some of those affected may require specialist referral. There is an urgent need to extend current treatments, both psychological and pharmacological, to encompass recovery and rehabilitation, as well as prevention, and to acknowledge that psychiatric assessment or medication may be necessary in this process, taking into account all the physical, psychological and social needs of survivors (Raphael, 1996).

Expanding horizons to explore the interaction between events and individuals, with greater emphasis on environmental precursors and mediators, may open up new avenues for understanding disaster and trauma impact. Moreover this work shows considerable promise from the point of view of developing interventions that can prevent or minimise pathology and promote adaptation and growth. Such work also opens up new opportunities for collaborative, multi-disciplinary work.

The adoption by the ISTSS of the theme of "Trauma and Controversy" for their 1996 conference signals that this is an interesting time to be involved in the study of psychological trauma. The issues debated at this conference included traumatic amnesia and recovered memories and the efficacy of critical incident stress debriefing. Such controversies, and the debate they stimulate, are important devices for promoting the growth and development of professional communities, affording new opportunities for research collaboration, and for the development and evaluation of interventions. Encouraging such debate and welcoming opportunities to explore new areas, ask new questions, and reappraise existing ideas and interventions is important from the point of view of avoiding complacency and "becoming trapped in prevailing paradigms without being able to see their shortcomings" (van der Kolk, et al. 1996; p xviii).

Nor should we forget the legal and ethical implications of the issues that underpin the airing of these concerns and controversies. The work of disaster and trauma professionals of increasing interest to policy makers and to members of the legal community, as well as to members of academic and professional bodies. Encouraging debate within the professional community, and providing a resource that can contribute to public awareness and understanding, is a goal of this journal. At a practical level, there are organisational and administrative issues that must be addressed; consultation, communication and liaison processes; and how policies, plans, education and information need to be organised in a manner appropriate for responding to significant incidents (Raphael, 1996). It is hoped that the likelihood of these goals being achieved will be enhanced by the availability of a medium for both their debate and discussion and their dissemination to those charged with the responsibility for formulating policy and responding to disasters and traumatic events.

Despite the growth of academic and professional interest in the area of disaster and trauma studies, at present, there is no generally available medium for the collation and dissemination of information about, and lessons learnt from, these events for an Australasian audience. While established journals provide valuable information, it may be several years before their contents become publicly available. When it does it may not be readily accessible for an Australasian audience. It is hoped that this journal will fill some of these gaps by affording a 'local' audience with opportunities for the prompt publication of scholarly and review articles and for overseas contributors to have access to a publication medium that will facilitate their ability to disseminate information of interest to researchers and practitioners within the Australasian region. By utilizing the internet as a medium for publication, we can counter some of the constraints imposed upon us by our geographical position and increase the exposure of Australasian work to a world- wide audience.

The journal will not be restricted solely to the publication of academic work. It also makes provision for the dissemination of information on, for example, work in progress, reviews of disasters and traumatic events and the lessons learnt from them. In this way it is hoped to provide a means of collating information and for making it available to a wide audience, both academic and professional, in a timely fashion. It is also acknowledged that the growing incidence of disasters and traumatic events calls for greater readiness and response capability. The unpredictability of disasters in terms of their nature, timing, duration and location places unavoidable limits on the effectiveness of preparations for their management. It is anticipated that the Journal can provide an additional resource in such circumstances by providing access to commentaries from experts throughout the region in a timely manner. The case material accumulated by this process may, with the consent and acknowledgement of those providing the material, represent a valuable resource for teaching and simulation development.

The Journal will provide a forum for the publication of original research, reviews, reports and commentaries which consolidate and expand the theoretical and professional basis of disaster and trauma studies. It will cover work on disaster and trauma mitigation and prevention, response, support, recovery, treatment, policy formulation and planning and their implications at the individual, group, organisational and community level. The Journal also recognises the multi- disciplinary nature of research and practice in this area. Consequently, it will actively seek not only contributions which represent professional and agency interest, but also multi-disciplinary articles and reviews which demonstrate a holistic response to disaster and traumatic events. The valuable role of Masters and Doctoral students in this context is also recognised. It is intended that the journal will provide both encouragement and opportunity for them to publish their work.


    McClure, J and Williams, S. (1996) Community Preparedness: Countering optimism and helplessness. In D. Paton and N. Long (eds) Psychological Aspects of Disaster: Impact, Coping, and Intervention. Palmerston North, Dunmore Press.
    Moran, C. & Colless, E. (1995) Positive reactions following emergency and disaster responses. Disaster Prevention and Management, 4, 55 - 61.
    Raphael, B. (1996) Preface. In D. Paton and N. Long (eds) Psychological Aspects of Disaster: Impact, Coping, and Intervention. Palmerston North, Dunmore Press.
    Van der Kolk, B., McFarlane, A.C. and Weisaeth, L. (eds) (1996) Traumatic Stress: The effects of overwhelming experiences on mind, body and society. New York, Guildford Press.
    Paton, D. and Bishop B. (1996) Disasters and communities: Promoting psychosocial well-being. In D. Paton and N. Long (eds) Psychological Aspects of Disaster: Impact, Coping, and Intervention. Palmerston North, Dunmore Press.
    Paton, D. and Stephens, C. (1996) Training and support for emergency responders. In Paton, D. and Violanti, J. (eds) Traumatic Stress in Critical Occupations: Recognition, consequences and treatment. Springfield. Ill., Charles C. Thomas.

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