Emergency Psychologist: helping the victims of disasters and conflicts

An emergency psychologist intervenes in areas affected by natural catastrophes, disasters and conflicts to provide initial psychological relief to victims and their families and support rescue workers.

The crux of their work is to help people handle the acute phases of the trauma and recover their ability to make decisions and take action, reinforcing the inner resources of people and communities. They also help people who have been involved in emergency situations to recover properly from the trauma they have experienced, so they can once again look forward to the future. They are usually part of inter-force rescue teams formed by the army, police, fire brigade, medical staff and volunteers, helping organise rescue operations and inform people of any risks or dangers involved and their potential consequences. Multidisciplinary training involves knowledge of medicine, first aid and safety, as well as proper training in intervening in dangerous natural-industrial settings or war zones. They must be extremely flexible and have a notable ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. There is now a growing demand for emergency psychologists in rescue operations in disaster areas, although, unfortunately, this has not been fully acknowledged yet in Italy.


An emergency psychologist will have a master’s degree in psychology, have passed the board examination and been licenced in section A of the Association of Psychologists in order to work freelance. Students interested in this career path after graduating are, as always, advised to focus their studies on subjects associated with emergency psychology or, in other words, clinical and dynamic psychology, developmental and educational psychology, social, occupational and organisational psychology and, of course, emergency psychology.

It is equally important to combine a conventional university education with theoretical-practical training in first aid techniques and organising rescue operations in crisis areas, for example, working as a volunteer for organisations like the Red Cross and Civil Defence. In this case, it is vitally important to take training courses and internships in organisations intervening in emergencies. After graduating, it is advisable to take a specialist master’s degree. Another separate but equally important issue is studying at an institute specialising in psychotherapy, a necessary step before working as a psychotherapist.

Career Opportunities

An emergency psychologist may work for the National Health Service, Police and Armed Forces or humanitarian organisations operating in disaster areas. They may also work freelance or with non-profit organisations. It is worth noting that in Italy there is no properly governed professional framework for this profession, so there are very few career opportunities in the private sector. An emergency psychologist may, however, work as a volunteer and enjoy the benefits legally available to Civil Defence workers as compensation for receiving no income from their employer or, if they are freelance, making no money from this volunteer work. These legal issues are close to being resolved since there are now Governmental Decrees and European Union Directors fully recognising the profession of emergency psychologist.

Job Description

An emergency psychologist intervenes in stressful situations caused by collective traumatic events, such as natural-technological disasters, environmental crises, epidemics, terrorist attacks or wars. Their first task is to set up a “psychological first aid” station on site to provide aid during the acute phases of stress and mourning, reducing the danger of chronic disorders arising at a later date.

An emergency psychologist can draw on an array of well-established knowledge, techniques and tools to be adapted to specific situations. An important aspect of their work is to identify environmental, social and individual risk factors related to the scene in which they are operating and, based on these factors, set up a sort of “triage” among the victims, so that priority care can be given to the most needy. An equally important aspect of an emergency psychologist’s work is to provide support to professionals and volunteers involved in rescue operations, helping them psychologically deal with the suffering of the victims and their own anxiety and thereby reducing the risk of burnout. A particular aspect of their role in rescue operations is providing information about the risks and dangers resulting from an emergency and their potential consequences, an important means of preventing panic from spreading and making the situation worse. An emergency psychologist’s work continues after a crisis is over, when they will be called upon to help victims on their path to recovery.