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

Volunteers provide disaster relief for hidden concerns

By: Eric Alves, Regional Communications Specialist, American Red Cross of Northeast Ohio

The American Red Cross continues to assist residents affected by hurricanes in the Southeast.  Among the disaster relief workers who are playing a role are mental health volunteers.

Red Cross mental health volunteers are a treasured group of individuals. They are all licensed independent health practitioners: psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and psychiatric registered nurses.

California Wildfires 2018

In addition to being licensed professionally, mental health volunteers must take specialized Red Cross training in disaster mental health which, for the most part, is far different than what they do in their daily full-time jobs. The specialized training is based on many years of experience in disaster relief, from those who have lost precious mementos in a home fire to the victims of 9/11 and everyone in between.

Red Cross mental health volunteers provide immediate crisis management. They instruct clients in becoming more resilient and help them cope with the various emotions they may experience following their loss. While mental health volunteers do not do long-term counseling, if they determine a client would benefit from long-term intervention, they will make a referral to a proper mental health specialist. They will not refer the client to themselves or to any other member of the team.

California Wildfires 2017

“Many victims and survivors do not recognize the need for intervention or do not want to be judged or labeled if they are struggling with recovery,” said Renee Palagyi, senior program manager of disaster cycle services for the American Red Cross of Northeast Ohio. “Our disaster mental health volunteers can help them to recognize the normal and destigmatize the need for counseling.”

Northeast Ohio is particularly fortunate to have some of the finest and most experienced mental health volunteers. They never fail to step up as needed even though the majority have full-time positions or time-consuming private practices.

Edgardo Padin, a mental health volunteer from Northeast Ohio, deployed to assist in the 2018 California wildfires. Recently, he discussed his experience assisting individuals who lost their homes with their mental health needs.

Tennessee Wildfires 2016

While it is easy to see the physical damage that a home fire or a hurricane can cause, it is not often as easy to see the internal effects a disaster can have on an individual. On World Mental Health Day, it is important to recognize the disaster mental health volunteers who assist with disaster relief efforts to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

For more information on the Red Cross’ disaster mental health services or to become a volunteer, visit redcross.org/volunteer.

Why I Volunteer: Disaster Mental Health

By: Christine, a Red Cross Volunteer in Boston (but calls NEO her hometown)

A colleague of mine, another therapist, always talks to clients about “shipwreck experiences”: those moments of tragedy where we are pushed to our limits, but learn something about ourselves and are moved to grow. That’s more than a feel-good saying or a pop-psychology mantra. In fact, it is at the core of the theory of post-traumatic growth, a counterpart to the idea of post-traumatic stress, and something that’s been found to happen more commonly than previously believed.

But how do people grow when everything around them seems to be lost? There are many pieces to that puzzle, but one of them is the support of the community. It is that support, which the Red Cross gives, and that Disaster Relief volunteers are trained to provide. These are the community responders you see on the news during times of tragedy. Perhaps they are setting up cots in gymnasiums, or preparing meals out of a truck. They are also the ones at the home fire in the middle of the night, handing out blankets and water.

My own background is in providing mental health services, and as a psychologist I work every day with people who have experienced loss – but usually months and years after the fact. When I was in grad school a professor of mine spoke to our class about the Red Cross’ Disaster Mental Health (DMH) services. This was in the years immediately following 9/11, and there were many stories about psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors who had worked Ground Zero.

A key point, he said, was that we would unfortunately have to wait to volunteer till we were licensed and could practice independently. So, I finished my clinical training, graduated, did more coursework and training to get licensed, and in the process sort of forgot about it all.

On April 15, 2013, I was getting home just after 3 p.m. from volunteering at Mile 13 of the Boston Marathon. I didn’t understand the words I was reading when a friend texted asking me about explosions. Throughout the next hour I had people, having seen my excited posts about heading off to volunteer and my close-up shots of the course, trying to text and Facebook me about where I was and if I was ok. I, myself, was trying to keep my cool as I texted the family of friends who were supposed to be crossing the finish line. I am still grateful that all of my friends and their families were safe, but it was a long, few hours. A mini-shipwreck experience, if you will.

The next day I looked into the Red Cross DMH training. Things were chaotic, and I didn’t hear back from the coordinator. It got set aside as I dealt with people already in my practice that had been affected by the bombing. But this time I didn’t forget, and finally I made the time to apply this summer.

When I was ready, the process was actually quite easy – go through your local Red Cross website, you can walk through the process of signing up. My trainings were mostly online, and volunteer coordinators helped me along the way. I’ll actually do my last training soon, and then I’ll start attending update meetings as the year goes on. I’ll be able to give my schedule of when I can volunteer for common incidents (like house fires) and be on call for larger incidents.

Through the trainings I learned more about the Red Cross and its mission, the role of Disaster Relief, and the specifics of being a DMH volunteer. The coolest thing I learned? That there are people, mostly retirees, that are called DOVEs (Disaster Operations Volunteer Escapees) who travel the US in RVs, and wait to be called upon to travel to disaster sites. My husband is not yet aware that I am going to push for this in our retirement. Please don’t ruin the surprise!

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A photo of the author from her “grown-up” job.