The threat of natural disasters, house fires, or other emergencies brings to mind immediate physical safety concerns, such as the loss of food and shelter, as well as health and medical issues like injuries, poor sanitation, and limited access to clean drinking water. But what about one’s emotional state of mind? The stress associated with experiencing a disaster can be unfathomable to those of us who have never experienced such crises. To help people cope with these stressors, disaster relief volunteers are deployed to areas affected by disasters and these teams often include mental health professionals who can help people address overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, and grief.
Martha Teater, MA, LMFT is one such volunteer, and she shared her experiences as a disaster relief mental health volunteer in an interview with GoodTherapy.org. Her experiences led her to become interested in understanding and managing compassion fatigue, and she provides trainings on the topic for mental health professionals. Compassion fatigue is not limited to counselors working in disaster relief situations, though; mental health professionals can experience compassion fatigue as a result of their everyday practices as well.
Martha’s upcoming continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, Sustaining Compassion: Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First!, takes place at 9 a.m. on September 26, 2014, and is available for two CE credits at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members.
1. How did you get involved as a disaster relief mental health volunteer?
I got involved in disaster mental health following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I had not done anything like that before, but felt compelled to go. I stayed in a shelter in Baton Rouge for 10 days and found it to be a rich and rewarding experience. Since then I’ve provided disaster mental health through the American Red Cross both locally and out of town for larger disasters. I try to deploy about once a year. The last time I went out was following Superstorm Sandy.
2. Can you tell us more about how people are affected by disasters? What kinds of mental health concerns are most common?
There is a wide range of reactions people have following disaster. A lot of people are shocked and stunned. Some are angry and scared. There are some people who are profoundly grateful—even if they’ve lost possessions or their home—because they are so relieved that their families are safe.
Children are often fearful and insecure. They need more reassurance from their parents, who may be so distracted with everything they have to deal with after the disaster that it’s hard to focus on the needs of their children.
3. How do you help people cope? What do you teach them about caring for themselves during and after a disaster?
We offer practical support (resource information, food, water, shelter) and brief emotional support by using Psychological First Aid and providing triage to screen for referral needs.
We focus a lot on self-care for those impacted by disaster and for disaster workers. People are often so overwhelmed with the needs around them that basic self-care falls to the bottom of the list.
4. What have your experiences taught you about people and their resilience?
Over and over again I’ve been amazed at the resilience most people have. Rather than throwing up their hands and giving up, they somehow summon up a reserve of strength and resourcefulness that carries them forward. Most people who’ve been through trauma don’t crumble; they survive and do quite well. They take care of themselves and do what needs to be done. It’s inspiring to those of us who witness it.
5. How do you maintain strength and take care of yourself through such exhausting work?
I make sure that I take care of myself and have a full and interesting life as I work as a therapist and disaster mental health volunteer. I try to get good sleep, exercise, and have fun. I place a high priority on being with friends and family, and I make sure I get some down time. I love to get outside and I enjoy a lot of different interests and activities.
By the way, good self-care is really important for all of us who work in the helping professions. Being intimately involved in people’s lives carries some risk, and we need to do all we can to protect ourselves so we can be effective in helping people while not sacrificing our own serenity.
6. How do you balance this responsibility with your regular counseling practice?
I keep my caseload at a reasonable level for me. I am involved in a monthly peer support group of other private practitioners. I do a lot of other things professionally. For example, I just coauthored a workbook called Overcoming Compassion Fatigue: A Practical Resilience Workbook. I do a lot of trainings for PESI/CMI Education. I will be going to Zambia in the fall to do some teaching at the University of Lusaka. I write articles for magazines and newspapers. In short, I find that I enjoy doing therapy a lot more when I balance it with other professional activities.
7. What tips do you have for mental health professionals who might want to get involved in disaster relief?
The most direct way to start is to call your local Red Cross chapter and talk to the mental health contact there. There are other organizations that also do disaster mental health, such as the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology and several religious organizations.
For the Red Cross, volunteers need to have a master’s degree or higher and be fully licensed to practice in their state. You also need to complete several courses that are available online or in person. Once you’ve done this, you can respond to local disasters, such as house fires, shelter operations, weather emergencies, and landslides, or deploy out of town for larger disasters (with a minimum 10-day commitment). You won’t be paid for your time, but travel, food, and lodging are all covered.
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