Providing Emotional Support for Volunteers in Disaster Situations

Abstract: 

Volunteers and members who are deployed to help during a disaster may need additional support due to the psychological impact of serving during this type of event. This practice discusses how to help mitigate negative stress reactions on members and volunteers, what to look for, and how to intervene. The ideas are excerpted from Operation Blue Roof and Beyond: Protocol on the Deployment of AmeriCorps Teams for Disaster Recovery, which was written specifically for those dealing with hurricane disaster assistance; however, the information is relevant for those deploying and supervising volunteers and members in other disaster situations as well.

Issue:

Relief volunteers may witness human tragedy or serious physical injuries, depending on the nature of the disaster and their role. During disasters in which there is a high level of exposure to human suffering, injuries, and fatalities, it is especially necessary to provide volunteers and members with psychological support and interventions.

Action:

According to Operation Blue Roof and Beyond, best practices in providing effective support and interventions for volunteers and members during response and recovery include:

Discuss the signs and symptoms of volunteer stress, as early recognition and intervention are optimal. Educating supervisors and staff about signs of stress (see below) enables them to be on the lookout and to take appropriate steps. When programs emphasize stress recognition and reduction, norms are established that validate early intervention rather than reinforcing more common "distress is a sign of weakness" perspective.

In addition to physical health, take some time to consider mental health as well. The days and weeks after a disaster situation are going to be rough. Remember that some sleeplessness, anxiety, anger, hyperactivity, mild depression, or lethargy are normal, and may go away with time. If any of these symptoms are felt acutely, counseling should be sought.

State and local health departments will help in finding local resources that may be needed, including hospitals or health care providers. Information and additional resources can be found at http://www.mentalhealth.gov.

Regular debriefing and reflection is recommended, either among the AmeriCorps teams or, if available, with a mental health professional that is trained to help relief volunteers cope with the stress of recovery missions. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army have trained professionals to assist relief volunteers with the emotional stress of the recovery mission.

Supervisors should be aware of the following common disaster worker stress reactions:

  • Psychological and emotional: Feeling heroic, invulnerable and euphoric, denial, anxiety and fear, worry about safety of self and others, anger, irritability, restlessness, sadness, grief, depression, moodiness, distressing dreams, guilt or "survivor guilt," overwhelmed, hopeless, isolated, lost or abandoned, apathy, and identification with survivors.
  • Cognitive: Memory problems, disorientation, confusion, slowness of thinking and comprehension, difficulty calculating or setting priorities, difficulty making decisions, poor concentration, limited attention span, loss of objectivity, unable to stop thinking about the disaster, and blaming.
  • Behavioral: Change in activity, decreased efficiency and effectiveness, difficulty communicating, increased sense of humor, outbursts of anger or frequent arguments, inability to rest or "let down," change in eating habits, change in sleeping patterns, change in patterns of intimacy and sexuality, change in job performance, periods of crying, increased use of alcohol/tobacco/drugs, social withdrawal, silence, vigilance about safety or environment, avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories, and proneness to accidents.
  • Physical: Increased heartbeat and respiration, increased blood pressure, upset stomach, nausea and diarrhea, change in appetite, weight loss or gain, sweating or chills, tremors (hands, lips), muscle twitching, "muffled" hearing, tunnel vision, feeling uncoordinated, headaches, soreness in muscles, lower back pain, feeling a "lump in the throat," exaggerated startle reaction, fatigue, menstrual cycle changes, change in sexual desire, decreased resistance to infection, flare-up of allergies and arthritis, and hair loss.

Outcome:

As it is with disaster survivors, assessment of relief workers hinges on the question of how much "normal stress reaction" is too much. Many of the above listed reactions are commonly experienced by disaster volunteers, with limited job effects. However, when a number of symptoms are experienced simultaneously and intensely, the participant's functioning is likely to be impaired. These practices allow supervisors to better identify when relief volunteers should take a break from the disaster assignment — sometimes this may be for a few hours at first, and then longer if necessary. If normal functioning does not return, then the supervisor can better recognize when the individual needs to discontinue the assignment (Burr, n.d.).

Related Resources: 

Citations: Burr, D. (n.d.). Operation blue roof: Protocol on the deployment of AmeriCorps teams for disaster recovery

 

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