Friday, May 31, 2013

The Second Source of Support: Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services

by Lilly Watson, Communications Manager, American Red Cross North Texas Region 
Red Cross Disaster Mental Health worker Anita Laffey
& her husband John, also a Red Cross volunteer
Anita Laffey, a veteran Red Cross Disaster Mental Health (DMH) worker, knows that her job is to be with people after disaster. In Zone 3, the highest impacted area from the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas more than a month ago, she stood in the backyard of a woman’s destroyed home while the owner pointed to each green plant, explaining what type of flower it was. To an untrained eye, talking flowers may have seemed like irrational behavior from someone given two, twelve hour blocks to get everything from their home before demolition. Laffey patiently listened and offered comfort, knowing this was part of this victim’s emotional breakthrough. 

“This woman’s garden was her pride, and she hoped it would be her legacy,” Laffey says, who worked 14 days as the DMH lead in West. “She was realizing that she wouldn’t be here to see them bloom in a few short weeks, and she was saying goodbye to everything in life she expected to have before the sudden explosion.” 

The American Red Cross responds to disasters of all kinds and sizes, working to ensure that victims have the first necessities as they determine what to do next with their lives. Hygiene items, snacks and warm meals and a safe place to stay are often part of a Red Cross response. Another Red Cross service provided is emotional support, whether it is a hug from a Disaster Action Team member at a home fire or a visit with a Disaster Mental Health worker at a large disaster such as the explosion in West or the tornado outbreaks in North Texas and Oklahoma.

Beginning at daybreak the morning after the plant explosion on April 17, Laffey led a team of up to 18 trained and licensed mental health caseworkers to help bring hope and comfort to the people of West. Knowing immediately that this response would be different because of the private nature of the tight knit community, the Red Cross adapted its strategy and found the best way to help people in West was to show them how to help others.

“We had business cards with mental health tips and warning signs on them that we passed out to people in West as we visited with them, and instead of making it sound like we thought they needed help, we asked them if they would keep it handy and use it as a way to check on their neighbors,” Laffey explains. “West is a strong community, and empowering them to help others was often better than making them feel as though they were in need of help themselves.”

While Laffey explains that for the first weeks it was important for victims to stay out of their emotions enough to make the decisions necessary to take steps towards recovery. Now, more than a month after the blast, is when those impacted will likely begin to see the emotional enormity of their loss. 

Like the woman saying goodbye to her garden, Laffey says the emotion comes from suddenly losing things that are the heartbeat of life in a formerly quiet and peaceful town. 

“People are really saying goodbye to a community’s history, from their brave volunteer fire fighters, to their schools and their neighborhood,” Laffey says.

The Red Cross Disaster Mental Health team worked with local church ministers, school counselors and West’s Mental Health Mental Retardation center to make sure they have resources on the emotional after effects of disaster and are getting breaks themselves to cope with the changes going on in their own town. 

Even as new relief efforts in North Texas and Oklahoma spring up, Red Cross caseworkers are continuing to do follow ups on victims in West that might still be in need of help, emotionally or otherwise. 

Laffey sounds determined that her work in West will reach everyone in need there, saying, “We’re going down the list, one by one, to make sure we’ve talked with every single family.”  

This National Mental Health Month, if you are a licensed mental health professional, consider bringing your skills to life in a new way as a Red Cross volunteer. Visit us at to learn more.

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