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ADVAS / Natural Supports  / Booklet  / Understanding Crisis


Understanding Crisis

What is a crisis?

A crisis is a stressful event that quickly overloads the mental and emotional resources of an individual. The crisis poses a problem which is viewed as insoluble since it is beyond one’s usual problem- solving ways. Even though any loss under any circumstances can cause a crisis for an individual, traumatic losses through an accident, suicide, homicide, or a natural disaster are examples of events that almost always create a crisis.

What are some of the common characteristics of a crisis?

  • The crisis period is characterized by immense stress as the individual is trying to deal with or manage the current event. A crisis tends to be time-limited.
  • The event is perceived as a threat to the individual’s everyday life as they know it, which leads to difficulties in coping and making decisions. For example, a parent may feel so numb and shocked with the news of the death of their child that they are unable to make simple decisions about daily family meal planning.
  • The crisis situation itself also immediately confronts an individual with choices and decisions, however due to the ongoing disorganization and confusion, the individual’s ability to make these decisions is limited.
  • The person’s emotional safety and stability is highly compromised, which results in feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or panic.
  • A crisis impacts the person’s beliefs, attitudes, and ongoing behaviours about themselves and their relationships. This leads to changes that can have both short- and long- term effects. Examples include becoming more uneasy about going out at night, refusing to try new activities, or avoiding the area where the event took place.

A crisis during a natural disaster

Offering and providing support to people in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster is somewhat different and has been referred to as psychological first aid. The approach is to reduce the initial distress caused by these events, as people impacted by such events will experience a broad range of initial reactions.

The types of support include:

  • protecting people from further harm, which may include removing them from the scene and taking them to a safe space
  • providing emotional comfort, such as calming and orienting emotionally overwhelmed or distraught people helping people access basic needs, which may include water, food, and shelter
  • helping people connect to information, services, and social supports, which may include directions to a designated place to assemble, locating or connecting with loved ones, and accessing government resources

A person’s ability to manage and cope

  • A person’s ability to manage and cope with the loss is influenced by three factors:
  • The individual’s perception of the event.
  • The individual’s variety of coping strategies.

The sources of support at the initial time of the crisis as well as the ongoing level of support.

It is important to understand that you have a major role in diminishing the adverse effects of the traumatic event. You can offer emotional support (such as understanding and supporting the person’s reactions) and/or instrumental support (such as driving the person to appointments or helping with childcare).

Providing a level of support

  • You, as someone who is able to offer emotional and/or instrumental support, provide a sense of comfort and safety for the person. This support is about establishing a connection with the person in a compassionate and non-judgmental manner to bring calm and comfort. An example of emotional support is providing a physical presence without ‘pushing for information’ thus creating a protected and caring atmosphere.
  • Situations of instrumental support may include helping people to access basic needs such as shelter, food, or childcare. You can play a role in helping people connect to information, services and resources, and other social supports. For example, arranging for an Elder or encouraging a traditional cultural practice for an Indigenous person.
  • It is also supportive to reduce stigma or shame associated with crisis, trauma, or mental health (e.g., drug overdose, rape, suicide). This helps protect people from further harm by reducing negative emotional and physical health outcomes. An example is you shielding people from onlookers or from judgemental comments on social media posts.

Considering the concept of do no harm, there are basic principles of assisting that you should apply:

  • Empathy – Be aware of a person’s feelings and try to view the situation from their perspective.
  • Respect – Understand that people come from different places and cultures. People have different experiences than you. Respect that they may not share your views.
  • Honour – refer to the person who has died by name.(*)
  • Integrity – Do what you say, and honour people’s privacy and confidentiality.
  • Dignity – Strive to maintain the dignity of others and provide them with time and space, if needed.
  • Consideration – all people grieve in their own way.
  • Acceptance – allowing them to express unhappiness.
  • Tolerance – discover the gift of silence, knowing a physical presence can be very comforting.
  • Awareness – being informed about resources or available supports to help people.

(*) In some Indigenous cultures, the practice is not to mention the name of the dead person. They need to let the dead person go and mentioning the deceased’s name is to call their spirit back. (Do not refer to the dead person as ‘the body’ but rather refer to them by their relationship to the family member.)