The spectrum of human reactions to terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction: early management considerations

Prehosp Disaster Med. 2003 Jul-Sep;18(3):253-7. doi: 10.1017/s1049023x00001138.


Residents of a community who are intentionally exposed to a hazardous biological, chemical, or radiological agent (including medical first-responders and other civil defense personnel who live in that community) will exhibit a spectrum of psychological reactions that will impact the management of the incident. These reactions will range from a variety of behaviors of normal people under abnormal circumstances that either will help or hinder efforts to contain the threatening agent, deliver medical care, and reduce the morbidity, mortality, and costs associated with the disaster, to the development of new, or exacerbation of preexisting, mental disorders. Anticipating the decisions that people will make and actions they will take as the crisis develops is hindered by the limited number of previous disasters that bear crucial similarities to a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. Such actions, therefore, could serve as models to predict community reactions. One result of a study that attempted to fill in these gaps suggested that medical first-responders and their spouses/significant others may require separately crafted information and advice to reduce the potential for disharmony within the family that could affect job performance during the crisis. For those persons who exhibit emotional lability or cognitive deficits, evaluation of their psychiatric signs and symptoms may be more difficult than imagined, especially with exposure to nerve agents. Appreciation of these difficulties, and possession of the skill to sort through them, will be required of those assigned to triage stations. The allocation and utilization of mental health resources as the incident unfolds will be the responsibility of local consequence managers; these managers should be aware of the results of a recently-held workshop that attempted to reach consensus among experts in disaster mental health, based on the peer-reviewed literature, on the efficacy and safety of various approaches to early psychological interventions for victims of mass trauma and disasters. Thus, psychological factors are likely to be significant in the management of a terrorist incident that involves an agent of mass destruction. Emergency medical workers with managerial responsibilities, whether limited in scope or community-wide, should be aware of these factors, and should train to handle them through effective risk communication as part of their planning and preparation.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / classification*
  • Mental Disorders / etiology
  • Terrorism / psychology*