How to Cope in Times of Disaster

Vanuatu Mental Health Newsletter

February 2019

Latest Data on Mental Health in Vanuatu

In 2018, Vanuatu’s Lifestyle Disease Unit conducted 13 screening sessions for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) across the island of Efate. As part of this screening, all participants were given a Kessler Distress Scale (K10) to assess their level of psychological distress. Of the 748 participants who successfully completed a K10:

  • 135 (18%) rated their psychological distress as low
  • 213 (28%) rated their psychological distress as moderate
  • 300 (40%) rated their psychological distress as high
  • 100 (13%) rated their psychological distress as very high

More than half of the population that were screened on Efate have either high or very high psychological distress. However, when looking at the amount of people accessing services from the MindCare Clinic on Efate, only 800 out of 65,800 people saw or were seen by the clinic staff in 2018 (1.22%). This means that there are many people out there with elevated psychological distress who may benefit from assessment and treatment with the Mind Care Clinic.

If you or anyone you know has been very stressed lately and it is starting to impact how you function at work, at home, or with friends and family, please do get in contact with us, and we will try to help out where we can. We can be contacted via the Mental Health Vanuatu Facebook page, or via the contact details at the bottom of the article.

How to Cope with Trauma in Times of Disaster

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse report that exposure to extreme stressors, such as natural disasters and internal displacement, is a significant risk factor for mental health and social problems.

Both Cyclone Pam in 2015 and the evacuations and relocation from Ambae in 2017 and 2018 are two recent events that had a potentially traumatic impact on a large number of people.

Disasters trigger much mental health and long-term psychosocial challenges, as the instability of the event has shattered people’s normal routines, and can trigger stress, anxiety, fear, loss, grief, depression, ongoing adjustment difficulties and trauma. These distressing events affect entire communities, as people can lose their land, homes and belongings, become separated from family members and other close social connections, and have limited access to basic needs and services, including mental health and psychosocial support.

Furthermore, the host communities that take in evacuees are also impacted by the sudden influx of new people, which can lead to changes in regular routines, increased distress and demands, a feeling of being overcrowded or overwhelmed, and reduced access to the already limited resources that are available.

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) services are critical for the recovery of affected communities, as they can mitigate the effects of such potentially traumatising circumstances. Vanuatu is amongst the top five most disaster-prone countries in the World, which further highlights the crucial need for a national mechanism and sustainable support infrastructure to address mental health needs during times of emergency.

MHPSS programs following natural disasters aim at the psychological recovery of individual community members as well as the social recovery of communities. Psychological first aid (PFA) training and implementation enable friendly, supportive responses to any individuals who are suffering or are in need of support. Such programs address the various psychological issues of affected individuals and strengthen the capacity of communities for future development. Although everyone is affected in some way by events such as natural disasters or internal displacement, some people are particularly vulnerable in crisis and may need extra help.


  1. Plan ahead, that is, don’t leave things to the last moment. Think about what it is that you have to do.
  • Do you have to travel?
  • Will you have people visiting?
  • Will you have to spend more money?
  • Do you have to buy special things like more food or water or other necessities?
  1. Be realistic.
  • You cannot do everything and meet everyone’s expectation.
  • your health, personal situation and family structure, may have changed. Make sure that your expectations on yourself and others are consistent with this.
  • Your home or business may have been affected by a natural disaster or accident.

You may need to reconsider what you plan to do based on this information.

  1. Learn how to say “NO” and this could be a difficult thing to do both personally and culturally.
  • Saying NO does not mean that you do not care or that you are not respectful.
  • Sometimes we do not have the time, health or resources to say YES and then follow through.
  • Saying YES to please someone and then becoming very stressed is not good for your health.
  • Take some time to think things through before you make important decisions.
  1. Reach out for help. When you are stressed and do not have the resources or health or time, talk to someone that you trust and talk things through.
  2. Tune into your feelings. You may be going through a difficult time, so try to admit to yourself if you are sad or angry. Give yourself the time and opportunity to improve.
  3. Try to resolve issues if possible. Focus on what is in your control and what is a priority. As much as you will want to fix everything at once, this is not possible.
  4. Stay healthy. Don’t eat foods that you know cause you to feel unwell or will be bad for your health like too much sugar or fatty foods.
  5. Don’t drink too much alcohol or kava or other beverages that may make you feel better temporarily but worse in the long-run.
  6. Go for a walk with your friends or family. Talk to your friends and family about their lives and yours to keep you connected.
  7. Every day take a few moments to be alone and free from distractions. Breath slowly and deeply and try to clear your mind.
  8. If you are lonely or sad or grieving, make sure you try to mix with others or if that is too difficult try to engage in community events. A church service or watching a sporting event could be helpful.
  9. If despite your best efforts you cannot manage and feel depressed or feel that life is out of control you may need to seek help from a friend, a church pastor, another person you trust. If this is not available, please seek professional help.


For more information or advice please contact:

Mind Care Clinic

Psychiatry Department



VOIP: 1972

Namalinuan Clinic



Mental Health Clinic



Mental Health Clinic



Mental Health Clinic



D.A. MoH Port Vila December 2018


Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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