News & Events

Behavioral health and emergency planning: the role of the school health programs

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
July/August 2005 Edition

By Lisa Gurland, RN, Psy.D
Mass. Department of Public Health

Public health professionals on the federal, state and local levels are working to create a comprehensive emergency response plan that will be implemented in the event of a disaster. Emergency preparedness has become an integral component of all public health programs for the state, local boards of health and community based organizations .and the school systems in every city and town are an important and necessary community partner in this planning process.

Behavioral health, in the context of a comprehensive disaster plan, addresses the ability of individuals, families and communities to function under stress with all the concomitant mental health, substance abuse and social service issues that arise in an emergency situation. Schools in general, and school health personnel in particular, will most certainly be utilized during a disaster and must participate in emergency planning. As response plans are put into place, it is imperative that the education, skill building and support of school health personnel be an important consideration. At present, school health programs use behavioral health theory and practice regularly. School health nurses are skilled in the assessment of and response to behavioral health needs of children and families in a variety of emergent and non-emergent situations. What additional training and information is needed to provide an adequate response during and after a disaster?

The following are a just a few of the many questions that school health nurses, in consultation with other school and community partners, must begin to answer:

  • What preventive measures can be instituted now so that disaster-related problems in functioning might be averted or mitigated?
  • How can the incidence of debilitating psychological stress, substance abuse, and other social problems be reduced (for all members of the school community, including children and adults) at the time of the emergency and in the months to come?

What support systems can be developed so that the school health nurses, along with other personnel, can sustain and maintain disaster-related interventions with children who have varying developmental needs and differences in resiliency?

The answers to these questions (and many others) are not simple and are dependent on a variety of circumstances. However, there are two important steps that will help move the planning process forward. The first is for school health personnel to generate a list of questions and concerns specific to their professional role and population served. Secondly, school health personnel must be active participants on community planning boards and coalitions both locally and statewide so that school health related issues remain viable and concerns are addressed. School health personnel must be part of the planning team as stakeholders, advocates for children and families, and as highly skilled professionals with important information and concerns relevant to the statewide disaster response plan. Consistently raising concerns in numerous professional venues will educate planning partners and focus attention on the emergency planning needs of school health programs.

The MNA holds a monthly meeting of the emergency preparedness task force. For more information, contact Chris Pontus at 781.830.5754.