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Psychosocial consequences of the Canterbury earthquakes


Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, DCNZM FRSNZ FMedSci FRS

Chief Science Advisor

Media release

10 May 2011

Psychosocial consequences of the Canterbury earthquakes

Community engagement and empowerment are essential to speed up psychosocial recovery after the Canterbury earthquakes, said Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, at a briefing and press conference today in Christchurch. Speaking at the offices of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), he said that for many people the earthquakes were disempowering events that left them with no sense of control over how they live, and that regaining such control is an important part of mitigating normal psychological responses such as numbness, depression, despair and anger. Community engagement in the planning of the physical rebuilding process is one way to restore such empowerment, as long as the agencies managing the recovery process are careful to demonstrate an understanding that the focus on the physical rebuild is not an end in itself but is designed to allow people to rebuild their lives and livelihood. Nevertheless, said Sir Peter, the agencies in Christchurch appear to be very conscious of the issues involved and are responding as well as they can bearing in mind the inevitable interplay between physical and psychosocial recovery.

Drawing on studies from the government-funded Natural Hazards Research Platform, Sir Peter described the four phases of disaster recovery: an initial heroic phase, in which people help and don’t count the costs; a honeymoon phase in which people see some help arriving and feel that the situation will improve; a long-term rehabilitation phase in which people realise how long the recovery will take and may become angry and frustrated; and a phase in which people return to a new equilibrium with an appreciation that things can never return to exactly what they were before the disaster. The people of Christchurch are now in the third phase, and it is inevitable that there will be tensions between the understandable desire for rapid physical recovery and the difficulties that planners face. These tensions have to be openly handled with sensitivity.

Most people are resilient and with appropriate pyschosocial support will recover in time from the effects of the earthquakes, said Sir Peter, but around 5 to 10% will require continued professional help, with efficient referral systems and sufficient specialised care. He commented that the capacity and expertise to provide psychosocial support in Christchurch is ‘impressive’. The local multi-agency psychosocial response committee is supported by national-level groups and has implemented evidence-based principles of disaster planning in its management of the immediate crisis and the subsequent planning for the medium- and long-term phases of recovery.

The briefing is available here on our website.


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