17 Confessions Of Counselors and Therapists Who Help People Cope After Disasters


First responders are there to save people in physical danger,
but no disaster response is complete without psychological
first aid too.

Posted on November 05, 2017, 15:01 GMT

After disasters like
hurricanes, earthquakes, shootings, terror attacks,
accidents, and fires, there are tons of mental health
professionals — AKA, disaster mental health volunteers — who
are deployed by the American Red Cross to help.

Between Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey, and the shooting
in Las Vegas, the Red Cross’s disaster mental health team has
had a busy few months (or as it’s officially called, they’ve
been in an ~active operational state~). Here are some things
you might not know.

Special thanks to the experts who provided intel and
anecdotes for this post: clinical psychologist and disaster
mental health volunteer Daniel Mosley, EdD; clinical
psychologist and disaster mental health volunteer Susan Silk,
PhD; and Valerie Cole, PhD, manager of the Red Cross’s
Disaster Health Services and Disaster Mental Health.

Photo by Chuck Haupt for the American Red Cross

1. We have to be prepared to be
deployed on very short notice.

We’re deployed pretty much as soon as it’s safe to do so.
We’d never be sent in harm’s way — for example, before a
hurricane is over — but sometimes, we have to be ready to
roll out with 24-48 hour’s notice.

2. Yes, it’s a volunteer position so
no, we don’t get paid.

But we don’t have to pay anything like flights, food, or
shelter. From the moment we leave our homes to the moment we
get back, we’re taken care of — though sometimes that means
staying in a volunteer shelter area, depending on the
circumstances and how devastated an area might be.

3. By the way, the most common disaster
we respond to are single family house fires.

Big disasters require a larger volunteer response — and
indeed, are more attractive to potential volunteers sometimes
— but year around, we can be found responding to small
disasters, too.

4. We are all trained mental health
professionals, but we don’t provide typical therapy to
disaster survivors.

We come from different backgrounds — we can be social
workers, psychologists, counselors, therapists,
psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, etc. That said, we’re not
there to form lasting relationships. Sometimes we only talk
to someone for five or ten minutes, so we do what is known as
psychological first aid, which involves responding to
immediate emotional distress and mitigating possible long
term consequences.

Photo by Chuck Haupt for the American Red Cross

5. Humans are incredibly resilient, so
a lot of psychological first aid involves tapping into
disaster survivors’ innate ability to cope and help

We try to help people remember what it was they did last time
they had a major problem or major challenge, and how they can
apply that to what they’re facing now. We try to make sure
they’re connected with support systems, like their families
and their friends. We help them problem solve. We help remind
them that they have the tools they need and that they
can get through this.

6. We let people know their reactions
are likely very normal.

Some people have more extreme reactions than they expect to —
they can become hyper-vigilant or easily startled, they might
have difficulty with concentration or memory, and they might
have trouble sleeping or feel irritable.

We can share with people that these are very normal reactions
to the situation, and that there’s every reason to believe
that they won’t feel like that forever. In fact, most people
will go back to their normal level of functioning in four to
six weeks.

7. But we’re also there to direct
people to other resources if they need a higher level of
care, because that happens too.

This is why what we do is technically known as
enhanced psychological first aid. Anyone can be
trained in psychological first aid, but our professional
expertise helps us recognize when someone is having a
reaction that requires more help and intervention.

8. After that, our job is to talk to
people affected by a disaster and listen to their

Sometimes, after someone goes through a major disaster, the
most helpful thing we can do for them is create a safe space
where they can tell their story, where they don’t feel like
we’re distracted or rushed, and where they can just
talk about what happened to them, the life they had
before this, and their concerns about the future.

Photo by Chuck Haupt for the American Red Cross

9. We go where we’re needed, and that
can mean straight to the center of a crisis, to a shelter, to
the medical examiner’s office, walking the streets, or going
to people’s homes.

We might end up somewhere unexpected too, like a small town
on the outskirts of an affected area, where only a handful of
people are in need of help. It all depends on the operation,
and sometimes, we don’t know what we’ll be doing until we get

10. So flexibility is one of the most
important qualities of a good volunteer.

There’s no room to get bent out of shape when plans change,
when we have to work with new people with potentially
conflicting personalities, or when we don’t have a chance to
see the impact of our work. We just have to go where we’re
needed for the short period of time we have, and trust that
we made a difference.

11. For some of us, it’s a one-time
thing, but many of us have been volunteering for years and
will continue to do so.

Some people find out that disaster counseling is definitely
not for them — sometimes it’s more draining and intense than
they were expecting, or they dislike how they can’t see the
impact of their work the way they can with long-term therapy

12. We provide care for other disaster
responders too, because if responders are not doing well, it
trickles down and makes for less effective help for

This work is hard — the hours are long, we’re often in
less-than-ideal conditions, and it can be emotionally taxing.
Sometimes, responders need to be able to take a walk with a
disaster mental health person and be reassured that they’re
valuable, that they’re doing a good job, and get some stress
management strategies.

Also, it’s our responsibility to be an advocate for mental
health across the operation. We make sure people are getting
their days off, that working conditions are the way they’re
supposed to be, etc., because if we don’t take care of our
workers, they can’t take care of the community.

13. Some of us go on condolence calls,
which means providing support to people who have lost loved

Those are understandably very emotionally intense experiences
and rarely do they get any easier.

Photo by Daniel Cima for The American Red Cross

14. Despite what you might think, most
disaster survivors won’t develop post-traumatic stress
disorder or other serious mental health issues.

Yes, disasters are traumatic and difficult, but only 10-15%
of people who experience a disaster are at risk for having
more long-term PTSD-like symptoms.

15. We aim to leave communities with the
tools they need to rebuild and deal with lingering mental
health effects.

This can mean working with schools and community centers to
teach local leaders how to support people in the coming weeks
and on anniversaries, or creating other long-term plans. Once
the community is able to take on the responsibilities of
taking of their own people, that’s when we turn it over to
them and move out.

16. We also work with local volunteers —
some of whom who have been affected by the disaster
themselves, but still find it in themselves to help

This is especially helpful in situations like the hurricane
in Puerto Rico, where local volunteers helped translate due
to a shortage in Spanish-speaking Red Cross volunteers.

17. Yes, it’s challenging — but it’s
ultimately really rewarding work.

We don’t always get to see how we’ve made a difference
because of the short timeframe we’re there for, and it can be
emotionally exhausting and difficult work. But at the same
time, we get to witness the resilience of people and their
altruism, helpfulness, hope, and kindness as they pull
through as a community, and that makes it incredibly

If you’re interested in
becoming a disaster mental health volunteer, you can find
more information here.

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