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When planning disaster-response programs, organizers often overlook the needs of individuals with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, addiction and bipolar disorder, bioethicists say.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics contend that individuals with mental illnesses are vulnerable even before a tragedy strikes. In planning for emergencies, these patients should be given as much consideration as people with physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, the authors wrote that disasters could disrupt patients’ access to crucial medications. If access is limited, withdrawal from certain medications can be deadly.

As evidenced by the Joplin, MO, tornado that wiped out a nursing home over the weekend, individuals living in long-term care facilities deserve special considerations, especially for those with dementia and other cognitive impairments. Such patients may not fully grasp the severity of the situation, putting them at risk for extreme emotional distress. Disaster-preparedness training for first responders should include advice on treating these individuals in a way that respects their dignity, the authors said.

This commentary was published in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.