Emergency preparedness programmes around the world are designed to protect people from health effects arising from radiological releases and the science behind these programs is well known and widely studied. However, as evidenced during the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi accidents, radiological emergencies also give rise to mental health issues and psychosocial consequences associated with the impact of protective measures and medium- to long-term socioeconomic disruptions.
The NEA Expert Group on Non-radiological Public Health Aspects of Radiation Emergency Planning and Response (EGNR) aims to address these mental health and psychosocial impacts, develop approaches for their mitigation, and deliver guidance to member countries for their implementation. The group provided input to the development of the recently launched World Health Organization (WHO) Framework for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies. The framework builds on the previous WHO and InterAgency Standing Committee (IASC) guidelines for providing mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings.
“The new WHO framework represents a major breakthrough and is a first step bridging the gap between disaster risk reduction and radiological emergency preparedness and response,” said Jacqueline Garnier-Laplace, Deputy Head of the NEA Division of Radiological Protection and Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety, during the online launch of the framework on 27 November 2020. “Until now, no comprehensive international framework addressed the issue. The new WHO framework will serve as a basis for developing derivative products, practical tools and solutions which can be readily integrated into an all-hazards approach for emergency preparedness and response.”
The NEA’s EGNR is now preparing an operational extension of the WHO framework to propose practical solutions, approaches and tools and to support the decision making process while planning for and responding to nuclear and radiological emergencies. In this context, the group organised two online workshops earlier this year together with the WHO to explore how the experience and lessons from non-nuclear crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, could help countries to improve mental health and psychosocial support in the event of a nuclear or radiological emergency.
“We at the NEA are looking very closely at the mental health issues emanating from radiological and nuclear emergencies,” noted NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV. “It is important to understand that decisions made by authorities, particularly when it comes to evacuation, have huge impacts on individuals and communities. These mental health aspects are just as important as radiological impacts on health and decision makers have the responsibility to understand them and take these factors into consideration.”