Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Disaster Mental Health Workers Helping Storm Survivors Cope

by Lauren McCinn Clarke, volunteer contributor
with contributions by Carl Manning, guest contributor

Tornado damage in an elementary school playground in Van, TX

For those who survived a disaster, it’s often more about a chance to talk about their feelings than being told how to deal with their emotions.

Red Cross disaster mental health counselors have been helping the victims of the severe weather that resulted in tornadoes and flooding around the state.  

“As you listen to people telling their story, it’s a way for them to process what’s been going on. It helps them to come to terms with it,” said Jerry Montgomery, a Red Cross volunteer who’s leading the team of about a dozen mental health counselors in the state. 

Jerry said what some might consider unusual behavior isn’t necessary that.

“It’s normal to be upset, maybe to cry. It’s just a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” she said. “We help them to understand their feelings are normal and they aren’t crazy.”

Children often are upset and show their feelings about a traumatic event. That’s when counselors like Richard and Carolyn Newkirk can use their specialized skills of counseling children. The husband and wife team were in Van, Texas after a tornado struck that community damaged the elementary school and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes.  

They talked to the teachers and school administrators about what to look for with the children and what they could say to help the student. They also made themselves available to the students. 

“Children are very resilient and they get cues for handling stress from their parents,” Jerry said. 

Richard and Carolyn said they heard some interesting stories as they walked through the impacted areas of Van.

For instance, a family of eight was home when the tornado lifted the house off its foundation and spun it around, landing it about 20 feet in the opposite direction. Amazingly, nobody was hurt and the house stayed intact.

Another story they heard was a mother and father with a three-week-old baby in their car when the storm coming. Next they remember, the car was rolling around with them inside and finally landed upside down with the top crushed. Yet they were able to crawl out safely with minor injuries. 

The Newkirks said a wide variety of emotions come into play for survivors, the most common being glad to be alive. There’s also a lot of open generosity, giving and sharing. They said children are particularly resilient even if they lost everything. 

For Richard and Carolyn, their work can be a mixed blessing. There’s a sense of sorrow when they see people who have lost everything. But there’s also a deep sense of fulfillment when they can see how they helped some people. 

There is always a need for state-licensed mental health professionals who want to volunteer their time. If you have the right background and want to help, please visit RedCross.org/DFW & indicate your interest during the placement process.

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