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Disaster Behavioral Health Services

Exposure to traumatic events, such as natural disaster, mass violence, or terrorism, may have a unanticipated or even long-lasting effect on mental health and well-being. Further, it is normal to feel stressful in tragic situations like a fire or the violent death of a loved one. While the impact of a tragedy or a disaster cannot be predicted, the Department of Behavioral Health Disaster Behavioral Health Services strives to mitigate the immediate and long-term impacts of all types of emergencies on District residents. 

What to Do if Disaster Strikes

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster everyone involved or exposed will have a reaction. For most of us, fear, anxiety, and confusion gradually will decrease.  It is important to pay attention to one’s own reactions and to that of loved ones over time. Understanding about stress reactions [PDF], strategies to relieve stress [PDF], and tips for emotional health and coping [PDF] may address initial concerns. Children respond to trauma in many different ways.  Knowing the signs [PDF] that are common at different ages can help parents and other caregivers recognize problems and respond appropriately

If you currently are experiencing distress caused by a tragedy and would like to talk with a mental health counselor, call the 24/7 Access HelpLine at 1-888-793-4357. The Access HelpLine also can activate mobile crisis services to respond to an immediate psychiatric or emotional crisis caused by a disaster or emergency if needed. 

Disaster Behavioral Health Services

After a neighborhood, District-wide, or catastrophic emergency,  Disaster Behavioral Health Services works to safeguard the continuity of essential behavioral health services and quickly mobilize further behavioral health services for affected consumers and families.   Rapid and effective disaster behavioral health assessments, stabilization, crisis counseling, and stress management are provided by certified DBH Emergency Behavioral Health Response Teams who are trained to deliver services sensitive to the diverse and cultural needs of the District. 

  • Psychological First Aid

DBH Emergency Behavioral Health Response Teams are trained in Psychological First Aid (PFA) which typically takes place during the first hours and days of a disaster or crisis event.  It is intended to minimize the distress and negative behaviors that can increase fear and anxiety.  The primary objective of PFA is to promote an environment of safety, calm and connectedness, empowerment and hope.

  • Individual Crisis Counseling

Crisis counseling is an early intervention intended for days, weeks and perhaps months after the event to address early stage disaster distress reactions. Crisis counseling is focused on minimizing the stress of the event, providing emotional support and improving the individual’s coping strategies in the here and now and aids in reestablishing rational problem solving.  The primary objectives of crisis counseling are to return the individual and community to pre-crisis levels of functioning and to facilitate empowerment by countering feelings of fear and helplessness with support, stabilization and resources

  • Information and Referral Services

Crisis counselors are trained to assess an individual's or family's need for referral to the appropriate level of ongoing mental health treatment if needed. Survivors also may be referred to other direct resources for support and information such as housing, financial assistance, or victim compensation programs

  • Training and Technical Assistance

The DBH contracts with community based mental health and substance use disorders providers across the District. Through federal grant programs, DBH trains providers to develop continuity of care plans to minimize disruption of operations and maintain services.  Such training further increases the District’s capacity to address the needs of the community whenever the health, safety or welfare of residents is threatened by actual or imminent consequences. 

Emergency Response Team Certification

The DBH operates a certification training program for emergency mental health responders. The Disaster Behavioral Health Responder Certification program is made up of nine core training sessions that teach skills/competencies in the attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary to provide evidence-based, culturally appropriate, and timely services to survivors. Participants who successfully complete post-session testing within a calendar year are eligible to apply. Emergency Behavioral Health Response Teams are deployed during wide spread community incidents from severe weather to hazardous material spills to terrorist attacks or during high surge or regional disasters.

To view and register for current Disaster Behavioral Health Responder Certification training sessions visit the DBH Training Institute.  For more information about the training and requirements, contact kevin.obrien@dc.gov, Director, Disaster Behavioral Health Services, in the Office of the Chief Clinical Officer. 

Continuity of Operations for Disasters and Emergencies

As part of its emergency preparedness and response to ensure continuity of consumer care, a DBH certified provider must have internal policies and procedures to prepare for and respond to emergencies, and a written plan to ensure that essential operations continue in the event of an emergency or threat of an emergency.  In addition, a certified operator of a community residential facility is required to develop such policies and procedures and a written plan. Disaster Behavioral Health Services provides a continuity of operations template and a continuity of operations for a community residential facility template to assist providers to develop internal emergency and disaster policies and timely service recovery in response to any internal or public emergency. The templates also provide guidance on building capacity and identifying resources in preparation, response, and recovery for that may significantly disrupt the care and treatment of DBH consumers.