Most people who need the Disaster Distress Helpline don’t know it exists.
Born out of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the federally funded phone line has been answering calls for more than a decade. It offers help to those experiencing emotional distress after a disaster or violent event — and has seen calls skyrocket in recent years thanks to accelerating climate-fueled disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, Christian Burgess, the line’s director, says he’s “never surprised” when people don’t know about the helpline. Society, he said, usually focuses on physical needs in the aftermath of a disaster.
“We’re talking about donations and sending goods and rebuilding, not mental health,” he said.
Psychologists and public health experts say that needs to change. As climate change turbocharges hurricanes, wildfires and other forms of extreme weather, resources like the Disaster Distress Helpline will only become more critical in coming years, they say.
“Disasters can traumatize even people who don’t have existing mental health issues. To have a helpline to call and tell you that you’re going to be OK, here’s how you can take care of yourself and take a breather is critical as the climate crisis drastically intensifies,” said Katherine Catalano, deputy director of the American Public Health Association’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity.
The Disaster Distress Helpline — reached by calling 1-800-985-5990 — is reachable 24 hours a day, staffed by 514 counselors at six call centers across the country. It is run by Vibrant Emotional Health, a New York-based non-profit organization, and funded through the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration originally provided the helpline with an annual grant of $850,000. Since fiscal 2021, the agency has been able to use money from disaster-relief legislation, including for Covid-19, to boost the program’s funding to more than $5.5 million annually.
That money helped “meet the level of growth the program has gone through,” said SAMHSA spokesperson Matthew Bailey.
Over that same period, the helpline fielded more requests than ever before. Some 70 percent of the helpline’s total call volume since its launch in 2012 came in just the past three years.
Hurricanes and tropical storms were the second-biggest motivator for callers and texters in 2022, after Covid-19. More callers sought help following major storms than following mass shootings. After Hurricanes Fiona and Ian devastated Florida with dramatic and deadly storm surge in September 2022, for example, calls to the helpline increased 120 percent over the previous September.
Not every caller mentions climate change or even a specific disaster as prompting their call, and counselors who answer the phone are told to follow a caller’s lead in validating their emotions and helping them find ways to feel calm.
But Burgess says climate change — and anxiety about the planet’s future — are something he “definitely” sees “anecdotally through the reports that our crisis centers send.”
“There’s anxiety on the calls about is this flooding going to happen again and feeling generally overwhelmed about the future of the planet,” he said. “They may not be saying the words climate change, but we know underneath the surface it is adding to distress and playing a role.”
From oil spills to floods
The psychological toll of disasters hasn’t always gotten much attention.
The Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon created a broader recognition among public health experts that the country was not well-equipped for the emotional effects of collective traumas.
“After 9/11, there was a very big concern across the country about both terrorism and natural disasters and the need for more preparedness in mental health responses,” said April Naturale, vice president of disaster services at Vibrant.
Just a few years after the attacks, in 2005, the federal government created the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a telephone line for callers grappling with suicidal thoughts. It was the first time mental health care had been attempted on such a large scale in the United States.
The need for more of it — including to help disaster victims — quickly became apparent when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast later that year.
The storm caused the suicide prevention line’s first major surge in calls. But most callers weren’t suicidal; they wanted help as they experienced emotional distress from the storm and its devastating aftermath.
Still, it took another five years for the federal government to fund a disaster-specific helpline.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 and subsequent oil spill, money from the legal settlement with BP was used to establish an oil spill distress helpline.
“There were so many public and private agencies dispensing aid in response to that crisis, but they weren’t mental health professionals, and they would constantly say that they didn’t know how to respond to peoples’ emotional distress,” recalled Naturale, who helped found the oil spill line. “There were a lot of fishermen who were devastated economically and then emotionally for a very long time.”
The hotline ran for two years to help oil spill victims. During that time, the rest of the country suffered numerous natural disasters, including unprecedented flooding in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2010 and the Joplin, Mississippi, tornado in 2011.
Those disasters were enough to convince federal officials at SAMHSA and the Federal Emergency Management Administration of the need to fund a broader disaster distress helpline when the BP money ran out.
“We were seeing flooding in areas that hadn’t flooded before, and continuous climate change disasters that showed the government we desperately needed a line that was open and available to callers all the time,” Naturale said.
‘Overwhelmed, anxious and isolated’
Today, the helpline responds to calls about both weather-related disasters and violent events, such as mass shootings. Counselors who pick up the phone help callers understand that their emotions and reactions — from crying to numbness — are normal, and guide them toward local support systems.
“We get calls from people feeling overwhelmed, anxious and isolated, and they are looking for resources about the disaster to help them feel calmer and more in control of what feels like an out-of-control situation,” Burgess said.
Sometimes, calls come not directly after a disaster, but on the anniversary or a few months later. In every case, counselors then will refer callers to local resources that can offer mental or emotional support.
“We often think as a society that after the house is rebuilt everything is fine now, but we are met with the emotional consequences for months after,” said Carolyn Levitan, senior director of crisis care for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, who runs a California-based call-center that responds to the disaster helpline.
Sometimes distress is prompted by having to navigate the process of rebuilding — like obtaining federal emergency funds or dealing with home insurance — with callers needing a place to vent their frustration.
“We can’t necessarily fix anything, but that’s not what crisis lines do,” Levitan said. “We are there to support someone in staying safe for today and finding healthy ways to cope with what is causing them distress.”
Levitan said Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston in 2017, showed her how important of a resource the helpline is. Though the helpline is generally used by people coping in the aftermath of a disaster, Levitan’s call center was inundated with calls from people trapped by floodwaters as Harvey made its way across Texas.
“We had a call from someone trapped on the roof of their home because 911 was out in their area, and we were who they thought to call,” she said.
One person called because they were running out of baby formula, while someone else called because they had lost power and weren’t sure whether their oxygen machine would last through the night.
“It was memorable because we can only provide emotional support, and that’s not what many of our callers most needed in the moment,” she said. “But we are always available and at least could tell those people that they are not alone.”
Mental health professionals who are on site following a disaster agree that the helpline is a critical resource.
Marty Dwyer is a licensed counselor who volunteers with the American Red Cross to be deployed to disaster areas for up to two weeks at a time.
No matter where she is deployed, Dwyer said she distributes information about the disaster helpline.
This past fall, she went to Maui to help counsel victims of the fast-moving wildfire, many of whom had their homes and possessions completely consumed by the blaze. She said she was grateful to be able to tell victims that there was a hotline they could call after she left town.
“There is quite a bit of grief that goes along with losing your home and safety and security,” she said. “And you don’t want to leave someone who is quite distraught with no resources at all. The helpline is someone they can call in the middle of the night and find support long after we’ve gone.”