Thursday, May 24, 2012

Red Cross Service Spotlight: How Mental Health Workers Serve After Disasters

Written by Amy Yen, volunteer contributor

Thank you, Patsy, for your unique and critical service to the Red Cross!

Mental health response is an often overlooked yet vitally important part of the American Red Cross response following a disaster. In honor of National Mental Health Month this May, we talked to Patsy Guest, one of our disaster mental health workers here in the DFW area, about why mental health is such a concern.

Thirteen years ago, Patsy became a mental health volunteer with the Red Cross in Dallas after retiring from the Cedar Hill School District where she served as a counselor. During this time, she’s responded to everything from local apartment fires to large scale national disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Recently, she deployed to Lancaster and Forney after the April tornados destroyed and damaged hundreds of homes.

“I’m there to support the individual survivors of the disasters,” explains Patsy. “I’m there to identify not only the immediate needs these individuals might have, but also any needs they may have long-term.”

As a mental health professional, Patsy has been trained to identify signs of possible post-traumatic stress or other problems people may face. However, disaster mental health workers do not give therapy in the field. Instead, they make sure that someone follows up, making referrals and connecting people who have been in disasters with someone in their area who can help.

“I never leave an individual without knowing that individual is getting help, until I know they’ll be okay.” she says. “I also make sure they’re connected to all the resources they need.” Mental health workers also work closely with case workers to identify immediate needs, like clothing and food, or nurses if there are medical needs.

In addition, mental health workers work with first responders, like fire fighters or EMTs, to make sure they are coping with the stress of their jobs. “I let them know that we’re there,” Patsy says. “That they’re not alone. Just like the survivors, most of the time, they just want someone to listen.”

Patsy’s specialty is with children and she never ceases to be amazed by their resiliency in the face of disaster.

“More than once, I’ll talk to kids after their house has been destroyed and all their things are gone and they’ll say, ‘Our house is broken. But we’re going to fix it.’ Somehow they know, they’re going to be okay,” she says.

She experienced similar unexpected optimism in Lancaster after the recent tornados, finding that most people were able to bounce back quickly and move forward.

“There was this one lady whose house was pretty much destroyed and she said to me, ‘Well. I’m going to get a new kitchen.’ It was just great that she could find hope in the middle of everything,” said Patsy.

Psychological First Aid is a required training course for all mental health volunteers working in the field following disasters and Patsy says the training is incredibly important preparation for what to expect and how to deal with survivors and first responders.

Disaster mental health is a relatively new area for the Red Cross and, while it continues to grow, Patsy says there is definitely a shortage of qualified personnel. Mental health workers must be licensed by the state as licensed professional counselors (LPCs), and they usually work as social workers, counselors or psychologists. When there is a disaster, the Red Cross has a need for volunteers with this specific skill set.

Patsy says it’s worth the time. “When there’s a big disaster, everyone wants to be able to do something. This is your chance. It’s so gratifying to help.”

If you have a background in mental health and would like to help, contact Red Cross DFW for more information.

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