The psychosocial impact of disasters has attracted increasing attention. There is little consensus, however, about what priorities should be pursued in relation to mental health interventions, with most controversy surrounding the relevance of traumatic stress to mental health. The present overview suggests that acute traumatic stress may be a normative response to life threat which tends to subside once conditions of safety are established. At the same time, there is a residual minority of survivors who will continue to experience chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and their needs can be easily overlooked. The ADAPT model offers an expanded perspective on the psychosocial systems undermined by disasters, encompassing threats to safety and security; interpersonal bonds; systems of justice; roles and identities; and institutions that promote meaning and coherence. Social reconstruction programs that are effective in repairing these systems maximize the capacity of communities and individuals to recover spontaneously from various forms of stress. Within that broad recovery context, clinical mental health services can focus specifically on those psychologically disturbed persons who are at greatest survival risk. Only a minority of persons with acute traumatic stress fall into that category, the remainder comprising those with severe behavioural disturbances arising from psychosis, organic brain disorders, severe mood disorders and epilepsy. Establishing mental health services that are community-based, family-focused and culturally sensitive in the post-emergency phase can create a model that helps shape future mental health policy for countries recovering from disaster.