By Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross

“I want to be a volunteer with the American Red Cross.” Those words came from Houstonian Charlotte Dugar while talking with American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Professional Laura

American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Professional Laura Warriner shares a moment with Houstonian Charlotte Dugar
American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Professional Laura Warriner shares a moment with Houstonian Charlotte Dugar. Photo Credit: Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross

Warriner at the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) in Houston, Texas. Charlotte’s home suffered major damage from the floodwaters that inundated parts of Houston. She came to the MARC and registered with Red Cross caseworkers to receive assistance. Then she came back a number of times. “I just needed someone to talk to and tell what happened…. The Red Cross has been wonderful,” said Charlotte.

The terrific storms, tornadoes, and torrential rains followed by flooding, that have inundated Houston and other areas of Texas since early May have destroyed or heavily damaged many thousands of homes. All of a sudden many people who had well-ordered lives found their worlds turned upside down. In responding to these disasters, the American Red Cross recognizes that dealing with stress by providing emotional comfort and making people affected by the disaster feel safe are critical steps in helping them to focus on the restoration of their essential physical needs. That’s why Red Cross places a high priority on the early deployment of trained mental health professionals during a disaster response.

Red Cross Disaster Mental Health (DMH) workers are all licensed mental health professionals in their state of residence. Laura Warriner, the Red Cross DMH volunteer shown in the photo interacting with Charlotte Dugar, deployed from Los Angeles, California, where she is licensed as a Clinical Social Worker. Other Red Cross DMH workers may be licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, school counselors, or marriage and family therapists.

Red Cross DMH professionals have special training to recognize and respond to people who need help because they are experiencing stress resulting from disaster situations. The work they do should not be confused with psychological therapy. Therapy is not possible or appropriate in the short time they have with disaster clients. Red Cross DMH workers are excellent listeners and have the necessary skills to offer brief intervention to alleviate suffering due to stress. “Often people just need to spend time talking about their situation, sharing their grief, or venting their frustration,” said Red Cross DMH professional Tom Nahrstedt.

Red Cross DMH workers are also always on the lookout for, and available to, Red Cross colleagues who are having difficulty due stressful situations to which they are sometimes exposed on disaster deployments. In some situations, Red Cross workers are required to have a short session with a DMH person at the end of their deployment to a disaster relief operation.

At their home chapters, Red Cross DMH workers also provide a valuable service by teaching Red Cross workers how to take good psychological care of themselves while deployed on disaster relief operations and by being available to help during local disasters such as home fires. They also play a role in coaching Red Cross caseworkers to be good listeners when interacting with people who have experienced a disaster. Caseworkers learn that their first step is to listen attentively and empathetically  as their clients relate their disaster experiences.