Disaster mental health volunteer helps people cope and heal after devastating losses

By Jason Copsey, American Red Cross volunteer

October 10, 2019- After Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017, the American Red Cross deployed volunteers to help provide food, clothing and shelter for impacted residents. Alongside these basic needs, the Red Cross deployed specialized volunteers trained to help individuals navigate the difficult emotional and psychological aftermath of a traumatic experience.

Adrienne Ford was one of the disaster mental health volunteers deployed to the Virgin Islands. Ford, a retired teacher and school counselor, joined the Red Cross as a volunteer in 2014 after learning about disaster mental health at a conference for school counselors. As an independently licensed counselor, Ford saw in the Red Cross an opportunity to continue practicing while serving those in need.

California Wildfires 2018

“The first time the Red Cross called on me to provide services was in response to the California wildfires in 2014,” said Ford. “There was a massive shelter set up at the Napa Valley fairgrounds. So many people had run for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

Disaster mental health volunteers tend to the emotional trauma people experience after a disaster. They play a critical role in the delivery of the Red Cross mission by providing support, comfort and hope to people impacted by incidents of all sizes, from home fires to natural disasters.

California Wildfires 2017

“Ultimately, people want to tell their stories to begin the healing process,” said Ford. “As mental health workers, we know how to ask the right questions for people to begin telling the story of what they have been through. The anxiety that comes from living through a near- death experience is considerable and depression can often follow.”

During her Virgin Islands deployment, Ford encountered families that were continuing to live in severely damaged homes instead of shelters. Working as part of medical teams consisting of a nurse, mental health advocate and a case worker, Ford would visit families and monitor for risk factors.

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“There was one family we had seen a few times and were continuing to check on,” said Ford. “I had talked with the mother several times about her experience. Half of her house had collapsed during the storm. Her son, a teenager, had been trapped in part of the house, and for a period of time she feared the worst.”

While Ford was able to connect with the mother, the son was less forthcoming. Over time, Ford was able to build trust with the child.

Texas Floods 2019

“We talked about sports and things he was interested in,” says Ford. “Little by little, he let me ask him questions about his experience. He started telling me about what it was like for him to have been alone and the fear he had experienced.”

As first responders, Red Cross volunteers are often the connection between individuals and community resources and local agencies. Mental health volunteers are critical in this role, as trauma can easily trigger harmful tendencies for those without adequate coping skills. The early intervention of a Red Cross mental health volunteer can be a key factor in the recovery process.

Oroville Dam Spillway Compromised 2017

Ford said that over her five years as a Red Cross volunteer, it is the firsthand experience of individuals helping one another that has been most rewarding.

“The way communities respond to disasters renews your faith in humanity,” said Ford. “People really do take care of each other.”

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

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