Photo credit: Katie Wilkes/American Red Cross

By Harsha Pradeep
Since the 1990s, Disaster Mental Health has evolved as its own set of activities within the American Red Cross, which support not just the residents of a disaster-struck region but also the volunteers who dedicate their vacation days and retirement years to helping Red Cross clients get back on their feet.

Many of the activities performed by the American Red Cross during disaster response require mental health intervention. Shelters, in particular, can be complex places to navigate emotionally because they are often the last resort when finances and family support fall through, says Bob Collin, volunteer Disaster Mental Health Manager.

“A shelter is a very intense place,” said Dan Mosley, volunteer Disaster Mental Health Chief. “[For Mental Health] it’s a matter of diffusing situations, helping problem solve, giving support to shelter staff and ideas about how they can respond to difficult clients or manage things so the shelter is as safe and nurturing a place as it can be.

In a disaster situation, mental health team members are needed to do condolence calls to a grieving family. They also assist in securing limited financial support and accompany case workers and health services into the community. But their main aim with survivors is to remind them of their innate resilience.

“By the time you talk to them, they’ve already taken some steps. They’ve found their way to the shelter. You conceptualize that as them having taken a positive step. Reframing in those terms helps them get a sense of empowerment,” Mosely said. “Some people have it built in more innately. Others need more help. But it’s always beneficial to nurture that resilience we all have.”

Disaster Mental Health is focused on short-term, emergency-related response, not long-term therapy, which makes the work unique and challenging for the licensed mental health counselors who volunteer as part of the Mental Health team.

Apart from clients, this team is also tasked with ensuring the emotional wellbeing of the volunteers, many of whom are deployed far from home and can spend weeks in direct contact with people who have lost homes and even loved ones.

“The stress volunteers pick up from clients is very visceral,” said Bob Collin, volunteer Disaster Mental Health Manager. “Working with the clients, feeding them, getting them up in the morning, playing with their kids, talking to them at night — when you are that close, it can wear on the volunteer. Two weeks with direct client contact can be a long time.”

Sitting down with volunteers, anticipating mental health needs and offering counseling are all a routine part of Disaster Mental Health operations. Most volunteers deploy multiple times to disaster situations and use these tools to help cope during crises in which their work is vital.

“There have been so many disasters here and the Red Cross is always there,” said Mosley, “Red Cross volunteers are a very special, unique group. They are people that care and want to give back.”