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!

Christine_Williams_rdax_225x150

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