The impacts tend to be greater in terms of loss of life, loss of property or the potential for psychological distress on a sizeable population," Christian Burgess, director of the DDH, told IPS.
Following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City, there was a need for a nationwide, phone-based crisis counselling service, Burgess
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration ( SAMHSA), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services
(DHHS) established the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in 2005, but created an entirely separate hotline for disaster counselling after the 2010 BP oil spill.
Transitioning from the Oil Spill Distress Helpline, the DDH
went live in February 2012, receiving its first major spike in calls following Hurricane Isaac, which tore through the Gulf Coast on the seven-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
"It's not therapy, it's not a substitute for therapy.
Really, it involves listening," Burgess
says, comparing the helpline to triage for mental health.
Counsellors are trained to listen for symptoms of distress that may indicate the need for crisis intervention, like suicidal or homicidal intent, and callers may also be at risk of depression or substance abuse.
The DDH saw spikes in calls after the Newtown shootings, in which a lone gunman killed 20 elementary school students and six staffers, and the Boston Marathon bombing in April, as well as the Oklahoma tornadoes in May.
"School shootings in particular tend to trigger stronger feelings of distress, simply because it's easier for a large part of the population to identify with the sadness and grief," Burgess
"It shakes our foundation of what is supposed to happen, the order of things... especially if you were already feeling vulnerable before the event."
says that the majority of calls following the Newtown shooting didn't come from Connecticut, but from all over the country.
After a major disaster, repeated coverage on the 24-hour news cycle, sensationalised headlines and the easy accessibility of Internet allow for the vicarious trauma of rewatching distressing events, which adds to anxiety, Burgess
"The event in and of itself is traumatic... but it's heightened by the constant media exposure, particularly for those who would have been at risk before the event," Burgess
Trigger events still loom, like the State Department's closure of 19 U.S. embassies across North Africa and the Middle East in early August.
have received calls from people concerned about what the terror alert means, Burgess
Calls related to Hurricane Sandy marked the first time the DDH
received sustained levels of calls over a period of time, Burgess
At its peak, Sandy resulted in a 2,000 percent increase in calls from two weeks prior, before the forecasts began to take shape.
Texts increased by 600 percent.
"In December we were starting to get longer calls from people, and mental health concerns were coming to the surface," Burgess
says, due to fewer resources and the emotional fatigue of still-displaced people.